Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.

Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners. [Read more…]

The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract

David P. Vandagriff, the intellectual property lawyer who blogs at The Passive Voice, has done the writers of the world a valuable service. He has written a short book on some of the most dangerous clauses in publishing contracts – clauses that can cause an author severe financial distress or even kill his career.

The book is called The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract, and from now until Sunday, 25 September, it is available as a free download from Amazon’s Kindle store. (After that, the regular price is a trifling $2.99.)

If you’re a writer thinking of working with a traditional publisher, or if you have already done so, I urge you to download it here.

The Tao of Prydain

Prydain, of course, is just the Welsh name for Britain; you can find it now on any U.K. passport, though Lloyd Alexander did not live to see that. Thanks to Mr. Alexander, the name has acquired a second meaning: it is also the name of a Secondary World, a parish or precinct of Faërie, which serves as the setting for one of the founding texts of modern fantasy. The Book of Three has, I am told, never been out of print since its appearance almost fifty years ago. This fact alone is enough to make many a modern fantasy writer weep with envy. One could, I suspect, fill a very large bookcase with the fantasy trilogies of which Book One was already out of print by the time Book Three appeared. But Prydain remains, partly because the publishers of children’s books are not afraid of their own shadows, and are not too proud to take the profits of a hardy perennial.

My own acquaintance with the fictional Prydain began when I was ten, and read all five of the original books out of the school library; a couple of years later, I acquired my own copies, which went missing in a house-move many years later. Last year, during the enforced idleness that followed upon my fall down stairs, I was delighted to find a complete set of the paperbacks, no longer virginal but still alluring, on a sky-high shelf at a second-hand bookshop within bowshot of my current home. I adopted them and took them home, and packed my bags for a visit to Prydain, to see if the tales retained their charm for an older and more jaded reader, or if they belonged in the vast category of trash that I only enjoyed because I had not yet learnt to tell my good taste from my bad.

I am pleased to report that the books seem as good as they ever did to me, or better. I understand, now, how Alexander produced some of his effects, and where he got some of the odder ingredients for his confection. I still like the same bits I liked as a boy of ten, and dislike most of the bits that left me cold then; but now I can appreciate the ingenuity of the good parts, and at any rate account for the others. I read the books this time with a curious sort of double vision — one eye in childhood, the other in decrepitude, with a lifetime of parallax between them. This gives me a perspective and depth of field, as it were, that would be hard to get in any other way. [Read more…]


Stephen J., one of our 3.6 Loyal Readers, has posted a review of The End of Earth and Sky on Amazon.com. I reproduce it here without comment, except to say that I am touched and delighted:

It says something about the current state of fantasy that The End of Earth and Sky can be accurately described as a refreshing change from what has become accepted as the modern norm, and that may well be to the story’s ultimate benefit; if it had been published fifteen or twenty years ago it might have gone unfairly overlooked or dismissed as the work of another Tolkien disciple in the vein of Kay, Brooks, McKiernan or Eddings. Instead, thanks to a modern genre field crammed full of the bleakly violent cynicism of Abercrombie, Morgan and Erikson on the one hand and butt-kicking urban fantasy or steampunk heroines on the other, Simon’s short but elegant first novel is like coming unexpectedly upon an oasis in the desert.

Superficially a standard coming-of-age bildungsroman, Simon’s tale of reluctant and not-especially-talented wizard’s apprentice Calin Lowford starts with an unexpected burst of violence and then, startlingly, features no violence at all for almost the entire rest of the story; likewise, the magic that Calin learns is a slow, painful process of question and answer that winds up revealing far more about the world Calin lives in than we realize at first glance. Calin’s mentor Rijeth may be the first “Eccentric Mentor” figure since Gandalf to successfully impress not only the protagonist but the reader with his knowledge, which is critical as they are the two most deeply developed characters in the book; likewise, Simon may be the first writer since Tolkien to deploy his fantastical “elder language” with enough skill and character to convince the reader that the tongue actually exists and could be learned, a vital part of the process of subcreation. Simon’s English prose also displays the same understated elegance as his constructed language, and Calin’s voice (in which the story is told) is an entertainingly wry perspective that does not skimp on admitting the narrator’s flaws and foibles. Finally, Simon has grasped the mythic element of fantasy in a way that many more “realistic” writers like Martin, Rothfuss or Erikson do not, and does not shy away from simply presenting fairy-tale impossibilities of geography with a convincing matter-of-factness that still leaves their elfland glamour intact. He also gives a sense of metaphysical and philosophical depth to his world that blessedly never yields to any temptation of “deconstruction” while still at the same time feeling wholly plausible and human.

While the story’s atypical paucity of traditional action scenes may be held as a flaw by some (though not by this reviewer), a more telling complaint – and really the only serious one in this reviewer’s opinion – is in the development of most of the other characters. However, Simon has what might be called the opposite of the usual problem; it is not that his secondary characters feel bland or unmemorable – every person who appears on stage is drawn with sufficient energy and precision to feel real – but they are most of them interesting enough that they are missed when the action abruptly shifts in the last part of the novel to concentrate on Calin and Rijeth alone. With the book’s cliffhanger ending, the lack of resolution for the rest of the cast is a perceptible gap; we are left wondering what happened to Calin’s father Hallin, or his former coworker Iriel, his friend Håkar, the arrogant noble Gram Loris or even his mentor’s rival Conin Dane, and the prospective wait for the sequel and the answers bids fair to be greatly frustrating.

Notwithstanding this complaint, The End of Earth and Sky may be the first high fantasy since Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry to really capture both the mythic grandeur and the practical intelligence of writers like Tolkien or Lewis, and aficionados of the field will not only enjoy this immensely but find themselves agog for the next volume. (Hint, hint, Mr. Simon.)

But I tell a lie: I do have a comment. The sequel, The Grey Death, is once again in leaf and flower, and I hope to release it not long after my experiment with serial fiction, Where Angels Die. I shall be very busy for the rest of this year, if my health holds up.

To the end of the world (and back again)

This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.

[Read more…]


Reviews of The End of Earth and Sky are beginning to trickle in. I have the particular honour to call your attention to two:

Sherwood Smith offers a fine and perceptive (and favourable) review on Book View Cafe:

‘New Discoveries — The End of Earth and Sky’

Jonathan Moeller reviews it on his own blog:

‘The End of Earth & Sky, by Tom Simon’

Encouraging news, to be sure.

The Children of Húrin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This review is included in the essay collection, Writing Down the Dragon.

As Tom Shippey rightly points out, Tolkien has not been well served by his critics. On the one hand you have the literati, the self-appointed Guardians of the Tradition, who have never overcome their collective indignation at the success of The Lord of the Rings, but somehow have never quite died of collective apoplexy either. This contingent is ably represented, this time out, by Marta Salij of the Detroit Free Press and Tom Deveson of the Times. I shall come back to Ms. Salij’s brand of incomprehension later, but here is a fair sample of Mr. Deveson’s hard work in establishing his credentials as one of those who just don’t get it:

Turin is captivated by ‘the Sindarin tongue’, ‘older, and . . . richer in beautiful words’. Tolkien endorses this equation of archaism with beauty, but doesn’t show why it is more desirable to write ‘dwelt’ than ‘lived’, to describe a sword that ‘would cleave all earth-dolven iron’ or to have people say, ‘Await me here until haply I return.’

After reading that, I spent half an hour combing through The Children of Húrin line by line, looking for the sentence that Mr. Deveson found so needless and offensive. It is dialogue, of course, Morwen’s last words to her daughter Niënor before setting out to find her son. That is a perilous quest, and indeed a hopeless one, as Thingol and Melian, her hosts and protectors, have warned her. But as we so often do, she makes a decision in a moment of high emotion and then sticks to it out of stubborn pride, letting no counsel sway her. [Read more…]

1977: Lost tales, unattained vistas

Review: The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This review is included in the collection Writing Down the Dragon.


The fantasy boom of 1977 would never have happened without The Lord of the Rings to blaze the trail, and it probably would not have happened at that time but for the fever of anticipation for The Silmarillion. When that book finally appeared, four years after its author’s death and forty years after it was first offered to a publisher, legions of fans rushed out to buy it, and thousands of them never finished it. I cannot think of any other instance in which an author engendered such high expectations for his next book, and produced a book so wildly incongruous with those expectations. It was as if a stadium full of people had come to see a football match, and were treated to an ice ballet instead. [Read more…]

1977: All roads to nowhere

Review: Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock


Not long ago, Tor Books released a new edition of the Circle of Light tetralogy, but Niel Hancock continues to be a rather obscure author. It is difficult to understand, or even to remember, the fanfare that attended the series’ first publication. These were perhaps the first books ever to proclaim their author a new Tolkien on the frontcovers: ‘A magnificent saga for all who love THE LORD OF THE RINGS!’ In fact the resemblances are few and feeble, but it was a portent of worse things to come. [Read more…]

1977: Hero and fool

Review: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson

J. R. R. Tolkien perfectly summed up the critical reaction to his fiction in a clerihew:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!

You could say the same for the most ambitious of his early imitators, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Readers and critics are just as divided in their opinions of this trilogy as of Tolkien’s masterwork, though the division is on wholly different lines. Tolkien is dismissed out of hand by critics who sneer at fantasy in general, loathed by the Moorcock-Miéville school of fantasy nihilists, and of course praised to the skies by a third group. The dispute about Donaldson cuts right across these divisions, and is unusually acrimonious even by the standards of the genre ghetto. By a curious kind of foresight, one of Donaldson’s own verses aptly describes the critical reaction to his work:

And he who wields white wild magic gold is a paradox—
for he is everything and nothing,
hero and fool,
potent, helpless—
and with the one word of truth or treachery,
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane,
cold and passionate,
lost and found.

It is, I think, worth taking a moment to examine the battle lines, for that may tell us something about the fantasy field itself as well as Donaldson’s place in it. [Read more…]