Why I Love Sam Johnson

By John Hertz:  Now and then I say something positive about Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).  Something like “one of the greatest writers English has known”.

Is it because you agree with his politics?


Because you agree with his religion?


Because you agree with his opinions?


Because you want to write like him?


He says things wonderfully.  We don’t use English today the way 18th Century people did; I don’t propose to try.  But put your mind there for a moment. Here he is in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773; published 1775).  He’s on the Isle of Mull.

that care which is always necessary, and will hardly ever be taken

Here’s one more – earlier, actually; he’s just entering the Highlands.

every claim of superiority irritates competition; injuries will sometimes be done, and be more injuriously defended; retaliation will sometimes be attempted, and the debt exacted with too much interest

Isn’t that (as I heard the beatboxer D-Nice say the other night) superdope?

Isn’t it amazing astounding fantastic?

Good Names for Bad Guys

By John Hertz:  During 1937-1956 a radio program called “The Answer Man” was broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System.  People sent in some 2,500 questions a day, a million questions a year.  The program’s offices were across the street from the New York Public Library, which helped a staff of forty manage the questions.  The office kept thousands of reference books and a 20,000-card index.

From the start the Answer Man was Albert Mitchell (1893-1954), although others were Answer Men for particular markets. He went to Paris and U.S. agencies dealing with the Marshall Plan a few years before his death; the program went to re-broadcasts. It ran fifteen minutes, twice a day, in a simple format.

Announcer.  Trommer’s White Label, the premium beer that is two ways light, presents Albert Mitchell’s program, The Answer Man.  And here he is, the Answer Man.

Mitchell.  Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  Now if you’ll read the first question.

Announcer.  Certainly.  A West Orange, New Jersey, man asks, “Does the British Who’s Who still list Hitler’s telephone number?”

Mitchell.  Yes, it does.

Even people whose questions were not used got a written answer.

This was satirized by the great Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962; his name, incidentally, is Hungarian for smith) as Mr. Question Man, whom people supposedly sent answers, to which he gave – comically fitting – questions.

Steve Allen (1921-2000) did likewise.  A version by Johnny Carson (1925-2005) was called “Carnac the Magnificent”, who perceived answers with mystic powers.

In 1964 Merv Griffin (1925-2007) dropped the comedy for the television game-show Jeopardy!  That’s not my exclamation mark, it’s in the title.

Some high-school friends and I came up with this ear-joke – I have to give it to you in writing, where it won’t work.

Announcer.  The answer is, “It’s good enough for me.”  And what is the question, Mr. Question Man?

QM: What was the patriotic cry of loyal Russians from 1585 to 1605?

We knew how to pronounce the name of the regent, then Tsar, usually given in Roman letters as Boris Godunov.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha 

Well, so did the great Jay Ward (1920-1989), whose widow I met once at the Dudley Do-Right Emporium while I was looking for a cel of Crusader Rabbit and Ragland T. “Rags” the Tiger to give a rabbi whose initials were A.G.S. and kept signing notes “RAGS”.

Ward after inventing Crusader Rabbit – Ward was Jewish, incidentally, as am I; we have a possibly unfair historical bias against crusaders – grew even more famous with Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose.  The main bad guy in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends – who once cut out the r after the F – was Boris Badenov.

And that’s my contribution under the title above.

Four Thoughts from Coleridge

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1432)  We know Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) mainly as a poet.  There’s The Rhyme (he spelled it Rimeof the Ancient Mariner, and for SF-lovers in particular there’s the sublime fragment “Kubla Khan”, to which SF has paid tribute in “The Person from Porlock” (R.F. Jones, 1947; included in Conklin’s first-rate Treasury) and I suggest also “The Skills of Xanadu” (Sturgeon, 1956; often reprinted).

Coleridge in his day was also known as a critic.  Reading the 1978 Penguin reprint of I.A. Richards ed., The Portable Coleridge (1950) I thought to offer you these.

The arrogance of ignorance

1812, on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet  (p. 421)

As long as there are readers to be delighted with calumny, there will be found reviewers to calumniate.

1817, Biographia Literaria ch. 3  (p. 461)

He who tells me that there are defects in a new work, tells me nothing which I should not have taken for granted without his information.  But he, who points out and elucidates the beauties of an original work, does indeed give me interesting information, such as experience would not have authorized me in anticipating.

(p. 465)

Dante … speaks of poets as guardians of the vast armory of language, which is the intermediate something between matter and spirit.

1818, on The Divine Comedy  (p. 407)

Hoping you are the same.

At the Height of His –

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1433)  Tim Powers is at his best in Forced Perspectives.  He managed to bring us this book last March, four years after Alternate Routes, a short time for him.  He writes well – that’s one of my understatements, folks – but not, as he’s told us, fast.

I didn’t re-read Alternate Routes first.  I don’t think you’ll have to.

He is, as we expect, imaginative, poetic, rooted in the world we know and branching away, realistic and strange.

C.S. Lewis advised what I call the One-Strange Rule: either an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary person in ordinary circumstances.  Rules get exceptions – does that have exceptions? never mind for now – but, or and, Powers does both.

I’ve advised The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  I didn’t have to advise Powers, he’s masterly at it.

As I said of another Powers book, and Samuel Johnson said of Shakespeare (it may take a genius to write about a genius; I’m doing my best), we’ve never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we can’t meet them; but we believe that if we did, they’d be as he portrays.  Such is the art of fiction.

Some years ago Bob Dylan sang “Nothing is revealed.” That was his art; not Powers’.  If we see a man walking on stilts, with springs under his shoes – another Powers book – or a car painted all over with clown faces, we’ll learn why.

When one of Shakespeare’s characters says “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he’s answered “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?”  Of course that’s iambic pentameter.  Powers has different fish to fry.  His recipe isn’t particularly to sow doubt about the claim (nor is it always Shakespeare’s).  In a Powers story they may well arrive.  His recipe is Then what?

Another part of realism is Where did that come from?  In a Powers story if a man has to swim a long distance under water, or shoot a handgun suddenly and well under great stress, we know how he can do that, and what it cost. 

I’m reminded of a different careful fantasy author who made a modern man wield a centuries-earlier sword.  The man was strong enough; nor did the foes he happened to be against call on him for much skill.  He beat them.  But he blistered his hand.

Not for nothing does SF have visitor stories, growing-up stories, investigation stories.  Readers must somehow learn things the imagined world takes for granted.  Forced Perspectives is an investigation story.  The two protagonists, Sebastian Vickery – not his real name, as the old joke relishes – and Ingrid Castine, try to learn what’s going on. They’ve seen some of this before. They thought they were out of it. They weren’t.

Powers often writes what some call secret histories. Who, really, was Kim Philby (1912-1988; another Powers book)?  How, really, did the sets for Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923) get buried afterward in the sand and sea (this book)?  Powers imagines the answer and tells us the true – according to his fantasy – story.

Another part of his realism – or, more technically, verisimilitude, the appearance of truth – is that he doesn’t invent everything.  For this book he didn’t invent the notion of an egregore.  He didn’t invent the Egyptian gods (or forces of nature? or demons?) Ba and Nu. You can look them up and see they’re what his characters say.  Of course those sources you found might not have known – or told you – the real truth, aha.

There’s comedy in a Powers story.  That’s hard to do, maybe harder in fantasy than in science fiction, which is already hard.

I’m not going to fall into the pit of trying to tell you what comedy is.  I’ll suggest it has something to do with our recognizing That couldn’t be true.  If I said to you What do you think, I can work magic?? you’d smile.  But in fantasy the character who said that might be able to.

Anyway, two of my favorite moments in this book are “Isn’t either” (ch. 7) and “You have behaved in a regrettably high-handed manner all along” (ch. 17).  Also you might recognize “Tension apprehension and dissension have begun” (ch. 15).  I liked them.  Maybe you will.

Once when Powers was being interviewed at an SF convention someone asked “Do you actually believe in this stuff?”  He said “No.  But my characters do.”  As Gordon Bennett wrote, and Frank Sinatra sang, “This is all I ask, this is all I need.”

Speaking of Alexander

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1424)

The man to whom one half … credited everything good in the country and to whom the other half attributed all the bad.

Alexandre Dumas, Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine ch. 31 (1870,
unfinished at the author’s death 1870; C. Schopp ed. 2005;
p. 219 in L. Yoder tr. The Last Cavalier 2007; of Napoleon in 1801)

The history of this book is itself like a Dumas novel.

Dumas (1802-1870), after its predecessors The Companions of Jehu (1857) and The Whites and the Blues (1867), seems to have rushed Le Chevalier into newspaper serialization; a short section at the end never appeared, presumably because the author had died.  After that the book seemed lost.

The great Dumas scholar Claude Schopp (1943-  ) recovered it hunting through archives a hundred thirty years later, as he tells in a seventy-page preface of which every word gladdens the hearts of researchers.

To say Dumas was huge in his lifetime is both figuratively and literally true – see his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (posth. 1873).

Today some of us know The Three Musketeers (1844) – I joke it’s so entitled because there are four of them, who fight with swords – maybe also The Count of Monte Cristo (1845).

But Musketeers has sequels Twenty Years After (1845) and The Viscount of Bragelonne (1847).  And Dumas published 100,000 pages, including history and historical fiction; fantasy; essays; plays, which made him famous; travel; and the still excellent cookbook-encyclopedia.

His father was a great general (T. Dumas, 1762-1806; T. Reiss, The Black Count, 2012; Van 1413).

A son (1824-1895) was also a leading man of letters (author of e.g. The Lady of the Camellias 1848, adapted into Verdi’s opera La Traviata 1853) and thus known as Dumas fils (“the son”).

Dumas père (“the father”) is – literary present tense – a master of romance, both affaires du coeur (“of the heart”) and d’honneur; of story; of suspense; of characterization; of the telling detail.

We can learn from him – and we have; Monte Cristo inspired one of our finest novels, The Stars My Destination (A. Bester, 1956).

In Van 1422, I quoted Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander (130; Sélincourt tr. 1958, Hamilton rev. 1971; of Alexander the Great 500 years earlier).

To Space From the Netherlands

By John Hertz:  Cat Eldridge wrote a birthday notice for C.S. Lewis recently.  Some of us talked about Lewis’ trilogy of Earth-Mars-Venus travel books, Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandraThat Hideous Strength.

You may have seen last year that Perelandra was one of two books on which I led SF Classics discussions at Loscon 46.  My note on them before the con is here, and my con report of that day, including the discussion of Perelandra, is here.

Throughout all three Space books Lewis refers to various things he thought his readers at the time would know, but we sometimes don’t.

A Dutch scholar, Dr. Arend Smilde (“Smill-deh”) of Utrecht, has a Lewis Website (in English), including a page of notes for Silent Planet, one for Perelandra, one for Strength.  He even added some for Perelandra I suggested.

I recommend all three.

Alan White Is 2020 Rotsler
Award Winner

By John Hertz: The Rotsler Award for 2020 has been given to Alan White of Las Vegas.

The annual Award, begun in 1998 after the death of Bill Rotsler and in his memory, is for long-time wonder-working with graphic art in amateur publications of the science fiction community.  It is decided by a three-judge panel and carries an honorarium of US$300.  Rotsler was, among much else, one of the great fanartists.

Alan White has contributed to these publications since the 1970s – mainly the periodicals by and for fans that fans call fanzines (coined by Russell Chauvenet in the 1940s), also fannish conventions’ fliers, program and souvenir books, and other such companions.

When this drawing

was used to decorate Matters Passed On to This Year’s Business Meeting in the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (“L.A.con II”) Program Book, White was already well known.

This one

appeared earlier in Scientifriction 9 (1977).

As other media became available, he used them.  Here is his cover for File 770 138 (2001).

Caricatured at left are (top to bottom) Mike Glyer, Bruce Pelz, Larry Niven.

Here is another drawing of about the same date which appeared some years later – as happens in Fanzineland – in Vanamonde 1403 (weekly; 2020).

Here is an even more elaborate cover for File 770 155 (2009).

Here is a recent image from This Here 35 (2020).

Fanart comes in many forms.  Good artists choose what will best suit what they wish to do – line drawings or computer-aided compositions, monochrome or color.  White is very good.

The Rotsler Award is sponsored by the Southern California Institute for Fan Interests, Inc., a nonprofit California corporation (yes, that’s what the initials spell, in this case pronounced “skiffy”).  The current judges are Mike Glyer, John Hertz, and Sue Mason.

Geeks Bearing Gifts

By John Hertz:  Yesterday being Don Fitch’s 92nd birthday, I wanted to bring him something; as the saying goes, a token but not a measure of my esteem.

I consulted Geri Sullivan in Wales – Wales, Massachusetts.  She confirmed DF was still living assistedly where I’d thought him.  Health precautions were strict just now, but I could relay through an attendant at the front door.  This dissuaded me from gift-wrapping.

GS had arranged with local fan Chris Marble to get DF a flower and some sushi from her and him.  Luckily I’d asked before redounding (note that redundant still keeps the old sense of “swollen, overflowing”).  GS asked “How about books?” pleasing me that my reputation there was still good.  “He’s been reading mysteries,” she said.

A first-rate used-book shop was on my way.  Traffic on the roads would be swollen soon, disincentive from an afternoon’s browsing.  I got the Nero Wolfe books Some Buried Caesar and Might As Well Be Dead, Georgette Heyer’s historical romance mystery The Masqueraders, and the SF mystery Saturn Run which I brought to your attention here (p. 17; PDF).

CM told me he’d got an Orange Gemstone orchid, and albacore and yellowtail sushi.

I arrived in good time, rang the doorbell, and handed gifts to a greeter.  As I was leaving, another attendant called “Would you like to see him?”  She didn’t have to ask twice.  She set a chair for me outside a mesh-screened window and brought a pad of paper.  DF’s deaf; not expecting to see him I hadn’t brought one.

In a moment there he was on the other side.  He walked up smoothly, so I supposed easily, with a bamboo staff (i.e. a walking stick as tall as he was).  His beard was full and well-kempt.  We had a happy 1/3 hour, the duration that house rules allowed.  He spoke, I wrote.

He hadn’t brought more than a few feet of books when relocating there a couple of years ago.  He was glad of Caesar and Might and the Heyer, had until then only heard of Saturn.

We talked of re-reading.  Since SF was thought a literature of ideas, he said, some was hardly worth a second go once its ideas were known.  It’s too bad, I said; I feared some authors didn’t trouble to write well.

We talked of re-thinking young and old.  I recounted how, at a museum in Japan, a guide had said of calligraphy by Soseki Mûso (14th Century) “The vigorous and self-confident brush strokes suggest that this was written in the later years of his life.”

We told a few jokes.  Since I was wearing a nose-and-mouth mask I drew a smiley face.

And, as Mary Poppins had said, it was time for me to go.

Happy the Dwarf

By John Hertz:  Results of the 2020 SF Poetry Ass’n Contest were posted here on September 25th.

I won 3rd Place in the Dwarf category (1-10 lines).

Two Filers’ comments congratulated me by name.  Thanks.

Perhaps you’d like to see my entry.  It’s an unrhymed stanza in 5-7-5-word lines.

That hill – a giant
Green elephant asleep, lost
On his way to Mars.

File 770 reported the Contest’s biographical notes about the winners.  Mine was simply “John Hertz is”.  This was due to no request, coyness, or like that, from me.  No one asked.  If the Contest called for any biography from entrants, I missed it.  However, I’m content.

Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the first full-length cel-animated feature film.  In Disney’s telling, Snow White meets dwarfs called Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.

Two Fritz Favorites

By John Hertz:  It’s the death-anniversary of Fritz Leiber (1910-1992).  He wrote both fantasy and science fiction – all strange; if I may quote a Robert Louis Stevenson story, “Desire of strange things swept him on” (“The Isle of Voices”, 1893).  Actually that’s not fair.  I keep objecting when someone attributes what authors write to what they want.  Leiber’s writing sweeps us on.

Two of my favorites among his science fiction are The Big Time (1958) and The Wanderer (1964).  Both won Hugos.

Recently I hear people complaining when attitudes of characters in a story published in the past are other than what we’d aspire to now.  I’m partly with this and partly not.  I think the first look is at how authors treat their characters.  A Filer said the other day I’d not call that book misogynistic.  The character is, but the text clearly shows he’s an idiot.  Then, as another Filer said, Of course it seems laughable to us now.  Isn’t that a gratifying sign of how far we’ve come since then?  There’s more, and Our Gracious Host has encouraged me to explore it, but I’m going to stop there for the moment.

We discussed The Big Time at Denvention III (66th Worldcon) in a set of SF Classics which I called “Wonders of 1958”.  See this Eddie Jones cover of a German edition.

I wrote, 

Spiders are the good guys, and our hero is a woman.  The first Hero was a woman too, go look up Leander.  Indeed this is a very classical book; it preserves the unities of time, place, and persons, which is mighty strange, considering.  There’s slashing drama, and if you’ve never been a party girl, it might not be what you think.

We discussed The Wanderer at Renovation (which I always pronounce “Reno-vation”; 69th Worldcon).  See this Allison cover of an Italian edition.

I wrote, 

Here are a host of viewpoints, a first contact with aliens story as we learn a third of the way in, a look at some favorite notions like “Rovers are free and good” and “Love conquers all”, and a breathtaking exercise in climax and perspective.

May I recommend these two books to you?