Speculative Sounds: Sonic Discoveries from “John The Balladeer”

By RL Thornton: One of the great rediscoveries of this year has been the stories of World Fantasy Award-winner Manly Wade Wellman. In particular, his magical stories about the high Appalachian wanderer and silver-stringed guitarist John have been republished by Valancourt Press in an anthology called John The Balladeer and in a larger complete two-volume set by Haffner Press (h/t to Michael Dirda of the Washington Post).

As Wellman’s dialect-laden prose slowly pulled me into his fantastic world of deep magic, my inner music geek started to wonder if all the songs in the stories were real. I knew that “In The Pines” had become notorious due to Nirvana’s live acoustic version, but what about the rest? Well, a little bit of YouTube diving reveals that Wellman knew his stuff!

So if you want to hear some of the songs as you read about John’s adventures, check out what I found below and enjoy. In most cases, each song’s YouTube link is accompanied by the lyrics from the story and the performer’s name.


When John refers to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, it turns out he was a real musician and song collector who actually recorded for the Library Of Congress!


His golden locks, John Dowland

“Beauty, strength, youth are flowers and fading seen—

Duty, faith, love are roots and ever green….”

  • Grace Davidson (soprano); David Miller (Lute)


Song: Hell Broke Loose In Georgia

  • The Skillet Lickers

Song: The Little Black Train

  • The Carter Family

Song: Many Thousands Gone

  • Matthew Sabbatella and the Rambling String Band

Song: Sourwood Mountain

  • Carolina Chocolate Drops
  • Frank Proffitt


Song: In The Pines

  • Leadbelly (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)
  • Nirvana (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)
  • Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys
  • Grateful Dead (Rare from 1966)

“Fare thee well my charming girl

With the golden slippers on….”

Song: Cuckoo Waltz

Song: Pretty Fair Maid In The Garden

Song: Willie From The Western States (variant of Barbara Allen)

Song: I Dreamed Last Night Night Of My True Love, All In My Arms I Had Her


Song: Lonesome River

“By the shore of Lonesome River
Where the waters ebb and flow, 
Where the wild red rose is budding
And the pleasant breezes blow,

It was there I spied the lady 
That forever I adore,
As she was a-lonesome walking 
By the Lonesome River shore. . . .”

(Above version currently unknown)

“Went to the rock to hide my face, 

The rock cried out,

‘No hiding place!….’”

Song: No Hiding Place

  • Bessie Jones
  • Flatt & Scruggs

John Henry

  • Leadbelly
  • Johnny Cash


Go Tell It On The Mountain

  • Bob Marley
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Dolly Parton

Chinese Science Fiction Database Recommended List 2023

Report by: Arthur Liu, Sanfeng Zhang and Shaoyan Hu (translator): Recently, the Chinese Science Fiction Database (CSFDB) released its annual science fiction & fantasy recommendation list for 2023.

The list is divided into 7 categories: Domestic/Translated Novels, Domestic/Translated Stories, Anthologies, Collections, and Related Works. A total of 59 entries are selected, covering 11 countries/regions. Hopefully some of these could get translated into English.

The complete list in bilingual form is as follows:


  • We Live in Nanjing, by Tian Rui Shuo Fu (CITIC Press, January 2023)
  • The City in the Well, by Liu Yang (People’s Literature Publishing House, January 2023)
  • Ban’s Cat, by Lu Ban (Chongqing Publishing House, August 2023)


  • Qualityland, by Marc-Uwe Kling, translated by Wang Bingyi (Sichuan Literature & Art Publishing House, January 2023)
  • Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, translated by Yu Bingxia (Shanghai People’s Publishing House, April 2023)
  • Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, translated by Gen Hui (People’s Literature Publishing House, May 2023)
  • Latium, by Romain Lucazeau, translated by Zhu Qianlan, Yu Ning, Wang Shaoxiong, Xue Simin, Suo Yuankai (Zhejiang Literature & Art Publishing House, March 2023)
  • Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg, translated by Feng Xinyi (Sichuan Science & Technology Publishing House, September 2023)
  • Babel, by R.F. Kuang (CITIC Press, October 2023)
  • Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds, translated by He Rui (Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House, September 2023)


  • Sailing in the Sea of Whales, by Ge Ling Lan (Science Fiction World magazine, January 2023)
  • In Death, We Seek Companionship, by Han Song (Non-Existent SFF; January 22, 2023)
  • The Corrector, by Wang Xiaohai (Non-Existent SFF, February 27-28, 2023)
  • Degradation, by Zhou Yuyang (Fiction World magazine, March 2023)
  • Cao Yue, by Tan Que (Non-Existent SFF, April 4, 2023)
  • Abundance of Meat, by Cai Jianfeng (Non-Existent SFF, May 22-23, 2023)
  • The Palette of Stars, by Jiang Yitan (Original Fiction Monthly magazine, June 2023)
  • Calamity of Mountains and Seas, by Lin Shuo (Non-Existent SFF, July 24-26, 2023)
  • The Inverted Tower of Babel, by Wang Zhenzhen (Galaxy’s Edge Vol.15: The Inverted Tower of Babel, edited by Yang Feng, New Star Press, September 2023)
  • Flight on the Land, by Bai Shu (Literature Port magazine, September-October, 2023)
  • The Chant of Water Dragon, by Bai Fen (Young Writers magazine, October 2023)
  • “Burning Poems”, by Liu Tianyi, Wang Zhenzhen (Non-Existent SFF, November 13, 2023)


  • Petra, by Greg Bear, translated by Zhang Yi (Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology edited by Bruce Sterling, Beijing Times Chinese Press, April 2023)
  • Memories of the Future, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Wang Yixiao, Feng Dong (Memories of the Future, Guangxi Science & Technology Publishing House, January 2023)
  • Oceanic, by Greg Egan, translated by Zhang Han (Oceanic: The Best of Greg Egan, Vol.1, New Star Press, January 2023)
  • Inside Job, by Connie Willis, translated by Chen Jie (The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories, Sichuan Science & Technology Publishing House, November 2023)
  • Hélicéenne, by Tristan Garcia, translated by Wang Meng (World Literature magazine, February 2023)
  • A Letter to Sylvia Plath: Soul of Dolphin (Died 2003, Iraq), by Ceridwen Dovey, translated by Liu Zhigang (World Literature magazine, October 2023)
  • Dunnage for the Soul, by Robert Reed, translated by Qin Hongwei (Science Fiction World: Translations magazine, September 2023)
  • Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing, by Andy Dudak, translated by Gao Qipeng (World Literature magazine, June 2023)
  • Albedo Season, by Ray Nayler, translated by Liu Ruixin (Science Fiction World: Translations magazine, January 2023)
  • The Beast Adjoins, by Ted Kosmatka, translated by Xu Yan (Science Fiction World: Translations magazine, September 2023)
  • Masquerade Season, by Pemi Aguda, translated by Renne (Science Fiction World: Translations magazine, August 2023)
  • Timekeepers’ Symphony, by Ken Liu, translated by Geng Hui (IWC Wechat Public Account, December 20, 2022 – January 12, 2023)


  • Adventures in Space: New Short Stories by Chinese and English Science Fiction Writers edited by Yao Haijun & Patrick Parrinder, translated by Lu Nan, Xiong Yuejian, Chen Yongrong, Liu Weimin (People’s Literature Publishing House, January 2023)
  • Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology edited by Bruce Sterling, translated by Zhang Yi (Beijing Times Chinese Press, April 2023)
  • First Time (はじめての) edited by Suirinsha (水鈴社), translated by Ju Su (Sichuan People’s Publishing House, June 2023)
  • The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic, edited by New York Times, translated by Lu Dongxu (Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House, July 2023)
  • The Songs of Space Engineers edited by Liu Cixin (New Star Press, October 2023)


  • The Best of Greg Egan (3 vols) by Greg Egan, translated by Zhang Han, A Gu, Xiao Aoran, Liu Wenyuan, Lu Dongxu, Chen Yan, Yu Baichuan, Yu Xiyun, Chen Yang (New Star Press, January 2023)
  • Memories of the Future, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Wang Yixiao, Fengdong (Guangxi Science & Technology Publishing House, January 2023)
  • The Serpentine Band, by Congyun “Muming” Gu (Shanghai Literature & Art Publishing House, February 2023)
  • Weird Words from Nowhere, by Clark Ashton Smith, translated by Ghost Trumpeter (Anhui Literature & Art Publishing House, July 2023)
  • City, by Clifford D. Simak, translated by Chen Yunru (Sichuan Science & Technology Publishing House, September 2023)
  • Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Wang Yixiao, Fengdong (Guangxi Science & Technology Publishing House, October 2023)
  • A Collapse of Horses, by Brian Evenson, translated by Fu Jingying (Writer Publishing House, December 2023)
  • The Complete Stories, Vol. 1, by Isaac Asimov, translated by Lao Guang (Jiangsu Phoenix Literature & Art Publishing Ltd., December 2023)
  • The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson, by Kim Stanley Robinson, translated by Cui Gong Rong Xiu, Liang Shuang, Xiao Lei (Sichuan Science & Technology Publishing House, December 2023)


  • The Anime Machine, by Thomas Lamarre, translated by Zhang Chang (Shanghai Jiao Tong University Publishing House, January 2023)
  • The Nature of Tomorrow: A History of the Environmental Future, by Michael Rawson, translated by Song Guangrong (China Translation & Publishing House, January 2023)
  • The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon, by John Tresch, translated by Liu Huining, Shi Jixin (China Science & Technology Publishing House, January 2023)
  • Chinese Science Fiction: An Oral History, Vol.1-Vol.3, edited by Yang Feng (Chengdu Times Publishing House, Vol.1: February 2023; Vol.2-3: November, 2023)
  • Words Are My Matter, by Ursula K. Le Guin, translated by Xia Jia (Henan Literature & Art Publishing House, April 2023)
  • The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch, translated by Li Yongxue (China Translation & Publishing House, July 2023)
  • The SF Spirit: Komatsu Sakyo Autobiography (SF), by Komatsu Sakyo (Sichuan Science & Technology Publishing House, August 2023)
  • Father of the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の父), by Kadoi Yoshinobu, translated by Li Oulin (People’s Literature Publishing House, August 2023)
  • The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan, by Tom Shone, translated by Li Sixue (Democracy & Construction Press, September 2023)
  • Album Calvino, edited by Luca Baranelli & Ernesto Ferrero, translated by Bi Yanhong (Yilin Press, October 2023)
  • Unlocking the Future: Urban Visions in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction, by Luo Xiaomin (Shanghai Bookstore Publishing House, November 2023; Routledge, April 2023)
  • Zero Gravity, Vol.12 – 13 (World Science Fiction special issue) edited by Riverflow, proofread by Riverflow & Ling Shizhen


  • 天瑞说符《我们生活在南京》(中信出版社,2023年1月)
  • 刘洋《井中之城》(人民文学出版社,2023年1月)
  • 鲁般《班的猫》(重庆出版社,2023年8月)


  • [] 马克·乌韦·克林《未来之城》,王柄熠 译(四川文艺出版社,2023年1月)
  • [] 大卫·福斯特·华莱士《无尽的玩笑》,俞冰夏 译(上海人民出版社,2023年4月)
  • [] 罗曼·吕卡佐《拉丁姆》,朱倩兰、余宁、王少雄、薛思敏、索元楷 译(浙江文艺出版社,2023年5月)
  • [] 沃尔特·特维斯《知更鸟》,耿辉 译(人民文学出版社,2023年5月)
  • [] 罗伯特·西尔弗伯格《内心垂死》,冯新仪 译(四川科学技术出版社,2023年9月)
  • [] 匡灵秀《巴别塔》,陈阳 译(中信出版社,2023年10月)
  • [] 阿拉斯泰尔·雷诺兹《天启空间》,何锐 译(湖南文艺出版社,2023年10月)


  • 格陵兰《鲸海浮舟》(《科幻世界》2023年01期)
  • 韩松《人死时是需要陪伴的》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年1月22日)
  • 汪小海《修正者》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年3月27-28日连载)
  • 周于旸《退化论》(《小说界》2023年02期)
  • 谈雀《草月》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年4月10日)
  • 蔡建峰《大肉》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年5月22-23日连载)
  • 蒋一谈《星星的调色盘》(《小说月报·原创版》2023年06期)
  • 林烁《山海劫》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年7月24-26日连载)
  • 王真祯《倒悬的巴别塔》(收录于《银河边缘015:倒悬的巴别塔》,新星出版社,2023年9月)
  • 白树《陆上飞行》(《文学港》2023年09-10期连载)
  • 白贲《水龙吟》(《青年作家》2023年10期)
  • 刘天一,王真祯《焚诗记》(“不存在科幻”公众号,2023年11月13日)


  • [] 格雷格·贝尔《彼得拉》,张羿 译([美] 布鲁斯·斯特林 编《镜影:赛博朋克文学选》,北京时代华文书局,2023年4月)
  • [] 西吉茨蒙德·科尔扎诺夫斯基《未来记忆》,王一笑、冯冬 译(《未来记忆》,广西科学技术出版社,2023年1月)
  • [] 格雷格·伊根《祈祷之海》,张涵 译(《祈祷之海:格雷格·伊根经典科幻三重奏》,新星出版社,2023年1月)
  • [] 康妮·威利斯《内贼难防》,陈捷 译(《烈火长空:康妮·威利斯杰作选》,四川科学技术出版社,2023年11月)
  • [] 特里斯坦·加西亚《爱丽司安》,王猛 译(《世界文学》2023年01期)
  • [] 瑟立文·达维《致西尔维娅·普拉斯的一封信:海豚魂(死于2003年,伊拉克)》,刘志刚 译(《世界文学》2023年05期)
  • [] 罗伯特·里德《灵魂的垫料》,秦宏伟 译(《科幻世界·译文版》2023年09期)
  • [] 安迪·杜达克《爱在免疫共享时》,高麒鹏 译(《世界文学》2023年03期)
  • [] ·内勒《反照季》,刘瑞新 译(《科幻世界·译文版》2023年01期)
  • [] 特德·科斯玛特卡《与兽同行》,许言 译(《科幻世界·译文版》2023年09期)
  • [尼日利亚] 佩米·阿古达《假面时节》,Renne 译(《科幻世界·译文版》2023年08期)
  • [] 刘宇昆《计时器交响曲》,耿辉 译(“IWC万国表”公众号,2022年12月20日-2023年1月12日连载)


  • 姚海军、[] 帕特里克·帕林德 《潮166:光年之外》,鲁南、陈雍容、熊月剑、刘为民 英译中,[美] 亚里克斯·伍德恩德 中译英(人民文学出版社,2023年1月)
  • [] 布鲁斯·斯特林 《镜影:赛博朋克文学选》,张羿 译(北京时代华文书局,2023年4月)
  • [] 水铃社 《第一次》,鞠素 译(四川人民出版社,2023年6月)
  • [] 纽约时报杂志 主编 《十日谈:新冠时期故事集》,鲁冬旭 译(湖南文艺出版社,2023年7月)
  • 刘慈欣 《宇宙工程师之歌:中国工程师硬核科幻精选集》(新星出版社,2023年10月)


  • [] 格雷格·伊根《祈祷之海》《快乐的理由》《三进数世界》,阿古、陈阳、鲁冬旭、刘文元、萧傲然、张涵、陈岩、于佰川、余曦赟 译(新星出版社,2023年1月)
  • [] 西吉茨蒙德·科尔扎诺夫斯基《未来记忆》,王一笑、冯冬 译(广西科学技术出版社,2023年1月)
  • 慕明《宛转环》(上海文艺出版社,2023年2月)
  • [] C.A.史密斯《虚境奇谭:C.A.史密斯克苏鲁神话佳作集》,无形的吹奏者 译(安徽文艺出版社,2023年7月)
  • [] 克利福德·西马克《荒城》,陈韵如 译(四川科学技术出版社,2023年8月)
  • [] 西吉茨蒙德·科尔扎诺夫斯基《不知情大街》,王一笑、冯冬 译(广西科学技术出版社,2023年10月)
  • [] 布莱恩·埃文森《瘫倒的马:埃文森黑暗故事集》,傅婧瑛 译(作家出版社,2023年12月)
  • [] 艾萨克·阿西莫夫《阿西莫夫科幻短篇全集1:最后的问题》,老光 译(江苏凤凰文艺出版社,2023年12月)
  • [] ·斯坦利·罗宾逊《金·斯坦利·罗宾逊短篇集》,崔龚荣秀、梁爽、小酹 译(四川科学技术出版社,2023年12月)


  • [] 托马斯·拉马尔《动画机器:动画的媒体理论》,张长 译(上海交通大学出版社,2022年12月)
  • [] 迈克尔·罗森《未来叙事:明日环境史》,宋广蓉 译(中译出版社,2022年12月)
  • [] 约翰·特雷希《浪漫机器:拿破仑之后的乌托邦科学与技术》,刘慧宁、石稷馨 译(中国科学技术出版社,2023年1月)
  • 杨枫 主编 《中国科幻口述史》(成都时代出版社,第1卷 2023年2月;第2-3卷 2023年11月)
  • [] 厄休拉·勒古恩《我以文字为业》,夏笳 译(河南文艺出版社,2023年4月)
  • [] 约翰·特雷什《爱伦·坡传:点亮美国科学体系的暗夜灯塔》,李永学 译(中译出版社,2023年7月)
  • [] 小松左京《SF魂:小松左京自传》,孟庆枢 译(四川科学技术出版社,2023年8月)
  • [] 门井庆喜《银河铁道之父》,李讴琳 译(人民文学出版社,2023年8月)
  • [] 汤姆·肖恩《诺兰变奏曲》,李思雪 译(民主与建设出版社,2023年9月)
  • [] 卢卡·巴拉内利 / 埃内斯托·费里罗《生活在树上:卡尔维诺传》,毕艳红 译(译林出版社,2023年10月)
  • 罗小茗《解锁未来:当代中国科幻小说中的城市想象》(上海书店出版社,2023年11月)
  • 《零重力报》第12-13期:世界科幻特辑,河流 主编,河流、零始真 编辑审校(2023年10月)

Talking With Michael Moorcock About His Music: Part 1

Michael Moorcock

By RL Thornton: When fans talk about Damon Knight Grand Master Michael Moorcock, they are usually talking about his extensive bibliography, the literary innovations that he encouraged as editor of the legendary ‘60s SF magazine New Worlds, and the tremendous influence that his Eternal Champion series has had on fantasy and science fiction. However, you may not know that Moorcock has been always pursuing a parallel career in music.

Moorcock has been performing and playing from his youth onward to recent years, where he has been collaborating with psychedelic rock collective Spirits Burning on a series of albums based on his Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. In this two-part interview, Michael Moorcock talks about his adventures with Hawkwind, his band the Deep Fix, and others.

NOTE: For those not familiar with the people or bands that he mentions, you can click on the link to see their Wikipedia entry (or other webpage if necessary).

Part 1:

Q: How did you first get involved with music? Did it start in 1955 with “your cousin’s Gretsch” guitar like you said in the fictionalized autobiography from The Whispering Swarm?

Michael Moorcock: I was into skiffle from about 1955, First stringed instrument was a six-string banjo, second was a Spanish guitar. I had friends with Gretches but my first electric was actually a Sears, which came with an amp in the carrying case. Then a Gibson and then a Rickenbacker 12.

Q: So how long did you play with skiffle bands?

Michael Moorcock: About two years. First I was with The Greenhorns, then the Travellers and I occasionally played with the Vipers. Also played individual blues in small clubs in England, Sweden, Germany and France.

Q. You were in the ‘60s UK music scene, which may have been one of the most exciting music scenes ever. What were some of your most memorable moments from that time?

Michael Moorcock: Many equally memorable times. Maybe the scratch band at Portobello Green with Paul Kossoff, Arthur Brown, Jon Trux [UK journalist], where we variously fell asleep, were chased home by girlfriends, failed to light Arthur’s hat [part of Brown’s act for his single “Fire”], and ultimately fell through the stage, was one. French fans thought it was the coolest gig they’d ever seen. Nik Turner‘s ‘frog in flight’ at Harlow was also pretty memorable!

Q: What was a Portobello Green gig like? Was it an open stage at the market?

Michael Moorcock: The stage was a small stage with bench seating, but was open on the north side facing the Green.

Q: Could you supply more info about Nik Turner’s “frog in flight” gig in Harlow? 

Michael Moorcock: Fairly famous. It was an open stage and raining slightly. We were late for the gig. He rushed into his [frog] costume and I rushed out to take my regular position. A few moments later, I saw this giant frog with a sax round its neck fly at full length past me and into the audience. The stage was slippery and Nik’s momentum took him to full flight.

Q: From what I have read, your future adventures with Hawkwind may have started when Robert Calvert started writing for New Worlds. How did you actually first meet?

Michael Moorcock: Nope. Jon Trux brought Calvert to see me around the time Hawkwind were starting but before Bob joined. Later Dave Brock asked me to perform my own material (inc Sonic Attack) at a Portobello Green gig. Trux and I had helped Bob into the Priory before he did damage to himself and Bob was worried I’d take his place so I promised him I’d fill in for him only when he was incapacitated but I’d step back as soon as he was ready to perform again.

Q: Beg pardon, but what is the Priory?

Michael Moorcock: Posh loony bin.  Several of my friends wound up there. They also treated alcoholism and serious conditions like Parkinsonism. Still do. Mervyn Peake, Martin Stone and Marianne Faithful were all in, as well as drunks. 

Q: From what I can tell, you first foray into recording was with Hawkwind on “Space Ritual.” What was that like?

Michael Moorcock: It wasn’t. I did a demo for HMV – terrible — no result. We did a comedy record Suddenly It’s The Bellyflops in 1964/5. As for the pieces I did on Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time, I recorded them on my way to see a movie, all one take in about an hour. I was supposed to get a fee, but never did (nor wanted it). I had no trouble. All went ok.

Q: Your next foray into music was with your band the Deep Fix on “New Worlds Fair.” How did the recording process go? The violin seems particularly prominent on the album.

Michael Moorcock: Cello from Pete Pavli. Maybe Simon House [of the Third Ear Band] did some fiddle. We did it the usual way, laying down music tracks first then doing voices, then maybe adding a little more to fill out.

Q: Looking back, how successful was New Worlds Fair?

Michael Moorcock: Pretty successful but it didn’t chart significantly mainly because UA had expected it to sound like Hawkwind and of course it didn’t. Before I did that we did a demo for a single which UA didn’t go ahead with but was released by Flicknife a few years later around 1981. Most of this was people asking me to do a record. I had no particular ambition to do records until Pete Pavli and I began to work together in the 70s and 80s — those demo and rehearsal tapes were released by Don Falcone some years ago.

Speculative Sounds Pt. 2: Composer Elinor Armer on Collaborating with Ursula K. Le Guin

By RL Thornton. Introduction: After discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s other collaborations with musicians (see the first part of this article), I contacted composer Elinor Armer to discuss her collaborations with Le Guin on their work Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts on Koch Classical and Armer’s settings of Le Guin’s poems in From To The Western Sea – Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin on Centaur.

Here are my questions:

1. How did you and Ursula K. Le Guin first meet and when did you decide to work together on compositions?

2. How did both of you come up with a compositional style for Uses For Music In Uttermost Parts? It feels very modernist to me.

3. Once you started to work together, what sorts of ideas did you come up with? Did you discard any concepts before settling on Uttermost Parts?

4. What was it like spending nine years to finish the composition? When did it become evident that it would take that much time?

ELINOR ARMER: During the early 80’s Ursula Le Guin’s daughter Elisabeth was a student in the first counterpoint class I taught at the San Francisco Conservatory. Elisabeth and  I remained friends after her graduation, and it was in the mid-80’s that I met Ursula at Elisabeth’s wedding. Ursula had grown up next door to my grandparents’ house in Berkeley, my grandmother and her mother had been friends, so we had reason to know OF each other but didn’t actually meet until Elisabeth’s wedding.

Ursula and I had never sought each other out, as strangers, asking about collaboration; however, when we met I asked her (naively) if she wrote poetry and had any that might be set to music. She subsequently sent me a few volumes and also loose-leaf, individual poems. From these sources I selected five which seemed to me to form a cycle and then began setting them the following summer while at the MacDowell Colony. The title, “Lockerbones/Airbones”, referred to one of the five poems containing these Ursula-contrived words. The set was performed in San Francisco the following year and subsequently published by my first publisher, J. B. Elkus & Son. Some years later we recorded another performance and Ursula put it on her website where it remains to this day. (All pertinent details regarding performers, sources, etc., may be found there.) 

So you see, it was friendship first, then my setting of already written poems—not a collaboration in the true sense at first. That friendship flourished and gave us great fun and pleasure; when we did decide to collaborate on something together from the ground up, I learned the true meaning of art as play, deep play. (We laughed uproariously at times, when Beethoven would have scowled.) On one of my visits to her California vacation home we agreed that it would be fun to collaborate on something from scratch. We came up with the preposterous notion of music being used for other purposes. We did not, however, conceive of the whole series or what it would become or what it would be called, nor did we work non-stop for ten years on this theme. Rather, when I received, sporadically, future commissions or requests from various performing forces I would consult with her to see if she thought we might collaborate in these instances. The musical forces involved on each occasion suggested the appropriate simile; for example, when I told her I had received a grant to compose something for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, she then created the text for Anithaca, designed for girls’ voices, a capella.

Ursula did not come up with “compositional styles”, nor I with textual ones. Fundamentally, I do not have a single compositional “style” that can be defined as such. Rather, I looked for characteristics in each of Ursula’s texts that could also translate to musical qualities. For example, both food and music can be crunchy, sweet, bitter, rich, liquid, thick, thin, spicy, etc; both music and weaving have threads, patterns, texture, direction (warp and weft), etc., etc.

So you see, while it was ten years or so before we recorded “Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts”, we did not start out with this as a goal. Rather, most of the pieces came about when opportunities arose as described above. It was not until after Ursula and I had co-narrated “The Great Instument of the Geggerets” with the Women’s Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta’s baton, that we decided to form a series under one title.

World Builders: Women Shaping SF and Fantasy: Guest Post by Sondi Warner

Sondi Warner is an author with a flair for the paranormal. Her debut novel, Lead Me Astray, was selected as an Amazon Editor’s Pick Best Romance in March 2022 and published by W by Wattpad Books. Sondi is also an avid astrologer, gardener, and painter, who draws inspiration from the natural world and the cosmos. She shares her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with her soulmate, their four amazing kids, and their mischievous pets, Se7en and Jack. Sondi’s new sci-fi title, Eidola Mater: Mother of Gods, is posting exclusively to Wattpad in April 2024 — check it out here.

By Sondi Warner: Great science fiction and fantasy transcend mere entertainment, sparking a profound awareness of the boundless potential of human creativity. These genres transport readers to worlds where reality is reimagined and perceptions are challenged—like the perception that women are not among the primary architects of sci-fi/fantasy.

In the vast cosmos of creativity, a fascinating phenomenon persists—the notion that women are somehow “bad” at crafting serious science fiction and fantasy.

Pat Murphy, American science writer and author, famously explained the thinking behind this misconception that women destroy sci-fi: “A persistent rumbling that I have heard echoing through science fiction … says, in essence, that women don’t write science fiction. Put a little more rudely, this rumbling says: ‘Those damn women are ruining science fiction.’ They are doing it by writing […] ‘soft’ science fiction and fantasy.”

Hard science fiction, with its laser focus on scientific accuracy and intricate technical details, has long been associated with male writers. The genre’s rules were etched into the fabric of the universe generations ago, relegating female authors to the lesser realm of “soft” science fiction, which is character-driven and speculative.

Meanwhile, fantasy carries its own conventions and historical biases. Male authors have perpetuated the “chosen one” or heroic quest trope. Women who dare to deviate from these established norms are sometimes considered less authentic within the genre.

The assertion that women can do anything men can do may forever spark celestial debates. Perhaps all sides can agree that when it comes to writing science fiction and fantasy, differences exist.

As the trailblazing author Ursula K. Le Guin once astutely pointed out, “Women are writing many of the things male […] writers thought could never be written.” These differences are not diminishments; they are diversifications—the cosmic engine spinning out new constellations.

In other words, what women are writing is different; but different is good. And rather than destroying science fiction and fantasy, we have made noteworthy contributions to the genres.

From inception, women have shaped science fiction and fantasy. Mary Shelley, the visionary behind Frankenstein, has become a cultural icon. Gertrude Barrows Bennet, writing under the pseudonym Francis Stevens, is considered the inventor of “dark fantasy” and is claimed to have had an observable impact on her contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft. Notably, Leigh Brackett blazed trails by being the first woman short-listed for a Hugo Award, and her work on the screenplay “The Empire Strikes Back” popularized the concept of a space opera.

In the present day, three-time Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin—acclaimed for her masterful The Broken Earth trilogy—persists in revolutionizing science fiction and fantasy. Jemisin deftly merges themes of survival, power dynamics, and a world on the precipice of catastrophe. Her novel The Fifth Season, with its intricate world-building and compelling characters, has earned widespread critical acclaim and numerous awards. She is well-known for featuring bisexual and transgender characters, too.

Jemisin and the other luminaries above remind us that the imagination knows no bounds, and women’s voices resonate across the galaxies of science fiction and fantasy. Women have always helped build these worlds. Women continue to challenge gatekeepers to make these worlds more inclusive.

As a science fiction and fantasy writer myself, I use these powerful tools of literature for social change. In my books, I delve into LGBTQ+ themes and characters that reflect the complexity of the human race. I write stories rife with imaginary elements—magic and supernatural creatures—set within science fiction and fantasy worlds. But beyond the surface, I write stories that envision a society where acceptance of differences is the norm.

Women are different from men and, regardless, essential in science fiction and fantasy. Women illuminate the fields with their brilliance, maintaining an enduring influence. Our stories reveal not only our perspectives but also the aspirations and wonders of millions of fans who admire and rejoice in our works. As the saying goes, the future is female, and so is the past and present of science fiction and fantasy.


Lead Me Astray follows Aurie Edison, a ghost who teams up with a psychic empath and a werewolf detective to solve her own murder. Along the way, she discovers a passionate and complex relationship with her two partners, as well as secrets of her past. Lead Me Astray is a diverse and inclusive story that blends fantasy, mystery, and romance in a thrilling and captivating way.


Murderbot and Me: A Guest Post by Robin Anne Reid

Merian C. Cooper: A King And A God In The World He Knew

Merian Cooper as a director.

By Steve Vertlieb: On April 21, 1973, a hero by the name of Merian C. Cooper laid down the gauntlet of fame and passed quietly into memory. He’d grown ill from the rigors of age and experience, losing his grasp of earthly endeavors after a brief hospitalization. Like so many who had passed before him, his name and contributions would become a line or a paragraph in recorded history, meaning no more than most men do or have done…and yet, this proper Southern gentleman would not have passed quietly, nor would his legend be blinded by death…for his was a singular journey, and his memory would continue to inspire excitement and imagination among those searching for adventure and significance along life’s often empty corridor. He was a king and a god in the world he knew and, like the giant ape that he created, Merian C. Cooper lived in both the civilized and primordial jungles of mortal endeavor.

I first became acquainted with the Cooper name somewhere around 1956 when I was a mere lad of ten.  My mother had told me stories for years about a movie she had seen as a young woman concerning a fantastic tale of beauty and a fabled beast, a huge mythological, predatory ape alive in a lost, primordial jungle who follows the scent of a young American woman back to the “civilized” shores of New York City.  There, amidst the spiraling skyscrapers of a volatile human jungle, the beast falls to his death from atop the newly constructed, tallest steel mountain in the world, the Empire State Building.  Yet, the shattered titan laying crushed upon the streets of the young city would not be stilled.  Like the martyred prophet finding rest at last on a Roman cross two thousand years earlier, the fallen Kong would rise again in resurrection and mythology far beyond his mortal years. Its legend would hover uneasily within the vague cracks and crevasses of my mind for most of my life and consciousness.

I was haunted by nightmares about Kong for many years. In my dreams I fancied that this huge, primordial ape had come for me and was marauding the night streets of the city in search of human prey. I could hear the distant pounding of his colossal footsteps in the darkness. I could see the cataclysmic shadow of his gargantuan features peering angrily through my window, roaring in immortal defiance of my sheltered sleep. I’d struggle to open my eyes and regain consciousness, for I knew that if I succumbed to the reality of slumber’s horrifying phantoms that I’d be lost. Locked in deep repose, my eye lids fluttered open and I sat up in bed, sweating profusely and gasping for breath. I had managed to escape the demons of my own youthful imagination once more. Yet, I knew that somewhere beneath my own consciousness he was waiting and that I dared not return to sleep.

Merian Cooper dreams of King Kong.

When my local CBS television affiliate in Philadelphia announced in the mid-Fifties that they were going to air the local premiere of Cooper’s masterpiece King Kong, I was thrilled. After years of dreams and fanciful imaginings, I was at last going to see the actual film. My mother’s tales of this magical motion picture had conjured countless nights of mythical, nocturnal wanderings in which the horrific beast would trample surrounding buildings, coming ever nearer to where I lay asleep in my room. I’d first sense, and then actually hear the prehistoric pounding of his premeditated footsteps approaching as I slept, paralyzed with fear. As the visage of this terrible beast peering through my bedroom window, huge eyes gaping in bewildered rage, awakened me in a cold sweat, the utter immensity of this astonishing stranger in a strange land invoked an uncontrollable eruption of frightened screams in the night.

I’d waited anxiously for the day in which “Kong” would finally reveal himself on my tiny television screen. In my arrogance and expectation, I’d forgotten that I was still but a small boy, subject to the stringent rules and regulations of the house in which I lived.  I’d assumed that seeing the film was a right, rather than a privilege and so, in my self-righteous determination to watch the film on my parents’ television set, I callously disregarded the sometimes thin line separating entitlement from boorishness. I was therefore punished, and forbidden from watching the premiere telecast of “Kong” at home.  I still had time, however, before the movie would begin.  I ran to a neighbor’s house and asked if I might watch “Kong” there.  My friend’s mother was moderately compassionate, allowing me to sit in front of their television set to watch the film.  My heart was beating wildly as the strange beeping atop the RKO tower filled both the tiny screen and my ears.  The overture commenced, and I was transported to a far away land into which the mortal walls of civilization and confinement evaporated, as though time itself had melted into primordial remembrance.

The film began as Carl Denham searched New York for a frail, vulnerable woman to accompany his motion picture crew to Skull Island. Fog lit seas concealed the enormity of the cavernous island, while ominous drumming sounds pierced the mist.  Expectation gave way to wide eyed wonderment as Ann Darrow was carried away from her safe confines aboard “The Venture” by ferocious natives, tied to a sacrificial altar in the black jungle, illuminated by the fires of burning torches, breathlessly awaiting an unimaginable fate. Huge trees came crashing to their roots as the jungle erupted with violence. Something was coming for her. As Ann looked higher, still higher toward the jungle skyline, her eyes beheld the greatest sight she’d ever beheld. There, gaping down at her from the far horizon, was an enormous beast, a ferocious predator, with lust in its eyes.  Ann’s screams echoed my own as they pierced the terrible night skies.

It was at that moment that my friend’s mother entered the room, announcing sweetly that their dinner time had arrived, and that the time constraints of my kind invitation had expired.  In utter disbelief and frustration, I ran from the house screaming yet again.  In desperation I tried frantically to think of someone…anyone…who might permit me to continue watching the film.  I remembered my sainted Aunt Jesse who lived perhaps six blocks away.  I ran until I thought my heart might burst.  When I reached my aunt’s house I began pounding on her door. Thinking something was wrong, she opened the door with a worried look, wondering what on Earth must have happened. I quickly explained that my own mother has punished me, forbidding me from savoring the most deliciously awaited moment of my entire life. Graciously, my Aunt took pity on this pathetic, tortured little boy, and turned on Channel Ten. There, before my tender young eyes, the drama played itself out…the capture of Kong by civilized “soldiers,” his unseen voyage back to America, the poetic crucifixion on a New York stage, and the fabled finale in which the crippled denizen of a lost, primordial jungle is ravaged by airplane bullets, his torn limbs and carcass crashing violently to the streets of Manhattan. 

Frustrated, yet determined, I had gotten my first taste of the legendary motion picture. It was not to be my last. Mere days later, I went to the traditional Saturday Matinee for children at the local Benner Theater on Castor Avenue in Philadelphia. The short subjects, cartoons, and serials had ended and now, before the unspooling of the scheduled feature of the week, the trailers began for subsequent features. “Coming Next Week” announced the on screen banner. As light filled the darkened theater screen, a giant primordial gate began to open slowly, painfully, against the crushing weight of terrified natives trying vainly to hold it back. There, between rotting splinters within wooden gates of this ancient, collapsing structure, was KONG, the mythic, nocturnal face of my terrified dreams and imaginings. I gasped in excitation. God in his kindness had taken pity on me.  I was to be given a second chance to see King Kong as it was meant to be seen…on the giant theatrical screen that, alone, could mirror its image and stature. I had never beheld anything so amazing. I sat quietly in the noise filled theater as other children of my age ran up and down the aisles.  I was enraptured with awe and with wonder. It was an experience that would eternally haunt me, forever changing the course of my life.

In October 1965, Bantam Books published the novelization of the fabulous tale.  First printed in 1932 by Grosset and Dunlap, with authorship ascribed to Merian C. Cooper and Delos W. Lovelace, this slim new edition was heralded in banner lettering that excitedly proclaimed…”NEVER BEFORE IN PAPERBACK!  THE ALL-TIME KING OF THE MONSTERS…KING KONG.”  My sweat soaked fingers reached out longingly for the book, pulling it from the drug store rack, and holding it tenderly in my hands. I rushed home and read it from cover to cover. The inside teaser promised the greatest adventure of all time: “…King Kong, the giant killer ape whose savage heart was touched by the innocent beauty of a strange blonde girl…Who battled to save her from the ravenous jaws of man-eating dinosaurs…Who finally broke loose into the modern world and terrorized a whole city in search of his lost love. The one and only KING KONG.”  The back cover was equally lurid, and unashamedly enticing: “Taller than a five-story building, capable of crushing airplanes with his bare hands, ruler of a lost empire of prehistoric monsters.  The Bride Of Kong…blonde waif from the city streets who invaded Kong’s kingdom, with a group of motion picture adventurers, and became the prisoner of the beast’s strange passion. KING KONG…The world-famous story of beauty and the beast which has thrilled and amazed millions all over the world.”

Intoxicated by the thrill of owning a fragment of the fabled film, I decided to reach out to the publisher in an attempt to actually locate and contact the man who had created, written, and filmed this amazing motion picture. I sent a letter to Merian C. Cooper in care of Bantam Books in New York, hoping that they might forward my letter to him. I remember composing a rapturous letter of praise for both the film, and its makers in which I spoke lovingly of how deeply the film had impacted not only my dreams, but my life. I co-signed my little brother’s name to the letter in the hope that if it elicited a response, that he might be included in that recognition. To my utter astonishment, a letter arrived with a postmark dated November 27, 1965, from a post office box in Santa Monica, California. The return address read simply…Merian C. Cooper, Brigadier General, USAF, Ret.  The typewritten letter was signed by Merian C. Cooper, and began…”Dear Stephen and Erwin Vertlieb…Thank you for your fine letter of November 11.  It is a great pleasure for a man like me to receive such a fine letter from much younger people. Of course I have received many, many thousands of fan letters in my life, but yours is one of the finest. I feel entirely unworthy of such words of praise and therefore am honored that you should so write me.” Thus began an enduring, surprisingly intimate friendship between teacher and student that would last for the next eight years until his passing in 1973.

Cooper was a faithful and tireless correspondent.  No sooner would I mail off a letter to him than another one would arrive by return mail. Except for his first letter which was handsomely typewritten, all of his subsequent correspondence over the next eight years would be handwritten in what would quickly become his instantly recognizable style and signature. In the years that followed, our correspondence grew in singular intensity.  There were weeks in which five of the seven days of the calendar would bring letters or packages from this remarkable soul, and historical giant. General Cooper and I would grow very close over the next eight years and, although we were never destined to meet, our daily and weekly correspondence would grow in both frequency and deepening involvement. He was a war hero, an aviation pioneer, a Brigadier General in The United States Air Force, a motion picture studio head, a famed documentary film maker, producer, director, writer and New York Times journalist. Perhaps it was advancing age and changing times that led him to become so enamored of the adulation of a then nineteen-year-old film student but, whatever the underlying reasons, we became close friends through correspondence over the remaining eight years of his life.

Cooper in uniform.

I received one particularly fascinating letter from “Coop” while he was visiting Vienna, Austria in the Spring of 1969. In a letter dated April 26, 1969, he wrote “Have only been back in Vienna a short time. We spent the Winter about 30 miles up the Danube from here. On a Famous hilltop care-restaurant on the edge of the Vienna Woods, my wife (Dorothy Jordan) and I are writing a few brief notes.” He went on to answer a few historically related questions about the pre-production and shooting of King Kong.  He wrote “The great wall and gate in ‘King Kong’ was thus built: I was wandering one day on the 40 acre ‘back lot’ of RKO Pathe in Culver City, and saw the skeleton of a huge gate that Cecil B. DeMille had built in the mid 20’s for his silent version of ‘The King of Kings.’  I had it quickly remodeled with great doors etc. for Kong – Built the village in front of it, etc. and shot it there. Instead of Roman structures, I remodeled the King Kong structure out of it.  It worked well. Glad you liked ‘The Selznick Years’ and the battle scenes from ‘Four Feathers,’ and the sequence from ‘King Kong’.  David – a friend of mine – had nothing to do with either, except to back me up on ‘Kong’ when no one else believed in it. He had already left RKO and gone to MGM, and I had become production head of RKO in his place when Schoedsack and I directed the Empire State sequence of ‘King Kong.’ Nevertheless, unless Dave Selznick believed in me, ‘Kong’ could not have been made. He never saw the battle scenes in ‘Four Feathers’ until the picture was finished. Part of it Schoedsack and I produced and directed in Africa, and part about 20 miles from Palm Springs.  But Selznick had great talent and was my friend.”  

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, I was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps in February, 1966, and spent some nine weeks on Paris Island, South Carolina.  While never a promising physical specimen by any stretch of the imagination, I tried to pass the grueling physical regimen of life in the Marines.  After a couple of months of frustrating efforts to succeed, I was eventually advised by a kindly drill inspector that, while he sincerely believed that I was trying to make it, that not everyone was physically cut out to be a Marine, and that he was going to recommend my discharge.  He reassured me that I would likely be re-assigned to the Army upon my discharge.  During that remarkable journey as a “Marine,” I received a letter from Coop.  In a note dated March 11, 1966, he wrote… “Dear Stephen Vertlieb:  Your brother has just written me you are a private in the Marines at Parris Island. This is just a line to wish you all the luck in the world and to say that I know you will make a great Marine. With every best wish, and God keep you…Cordially yours, Merian C. Cooper.” I suspected that my drill instructors were more than in awe, and a little shocked to hand this young private a letter from a Brigadier General in The United States Air Force. 

Our correspondence was lively and fascinating.  I was yearning to learn more about this fabulous individual, and the film he had created which had so pervasively invaded my dreams and fertile imagination. One of the more controversial aspects of Cooper’s masterpiece was the fabled spider crab sequence which no one had apparently ever seen. In the ensuing moments following the great gorilla’s encounter with the white invaders upon the giant log bridging the ravine, the terrified remnants of Carl Denham’s crew are hurled to their deaths in the cavernous pit below. In surviving prints of the legendary sequence, the men crash to the primordial ground beneath Kong’s jungle. Cooper originally filmed an extended sequence in which the hapless victims are then devoured and torn to shreds by carnivorous prehistoric spiders while their terrified screams fill the night. Forrest J Ackerman reported in early issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine that there were rumored, unedited prints circulating in the Philippine Islands, and that various fans had claimed to have seen these rare sequences in theatrical prints of the film over the years.  I asked Cooper point blank if this was at all possible, and he vehemently denied their existence. He wrote that the inclusion of this sequence in any known prints of the picture was patently impossible, as he had personally cut the scene out of the negative before the final version had even been scored by composer Max Steiner. The film would not have been released to the public in a rough cut version, and so these fables, while undeniably intoxicating, could never have occurred. Many years later, when Warner Bros. Pictures was preparing their definitive box set release of the restored epic on DVD, I was asked by the studio to provide evidence of the deletion for their lengthy documentary on the production of the picture. I photocopied Merian Cooper’s original letter to me and circled the paragraph in which he denied any possibility of the sequence surviving his cut.  I then forwarded the statement and mailed the letter to the studio. That portion of his letter to me, along with the incriminating circle in my own hand, appears in the completed documentary. Hence, my name was included in the special “Thank You” credits concluding the impressive new feature film, documenting the production of “Kong.”

 When King Kong was originally released in early 1933, it included what would later become notorious sequences in which natives were literally torn apart by Kong, ground into the mud by his giant foot, and eaten alive on the mean streets of New York City.  However, the most provocative and notorious of these sequences involved an unconscious Fay Wray awakening in the ape’s huge paw as Kong tears fragments of her clothing away from her quivering body, and brings her undergarments to his nose, sniffing her scent in mounting curiosity.  Forrest J Ackerman dubbed this interlude the “rape” scene from King Kong.  Filmed one year before the Hays Office imposed its infamous decades of censorship upon Hollywood films, the violence and implied sexuality in these scenes, deleted in 1938 upon the film’s first official re-release, had grown in both legend and intensity.  When the missing scenes were discovered by a Pennsylvania collector named Wes Shank in the early seventies, they were sold to Janus Films, and restored to all subsequent versions of the picture. In my eagerness to query Cooper about these scenes, and his psychological intent in filming them, I described the most provocative of these as the “rape” scene. His response was immediate and indignant. In no way, he insisted, was that sequence ever designed to suggest assault or rape. It simply reflected the innocent curiosity of a primordial denizen of the jungle who had never before encountered or sniffed the female scent.  Kong became increasingly enamored of Ann Darrow and protective of her well-being, he insisted. Such violence would never have occurred to him. I had forgotten in my delirium that Cooper was an old-world Southern gentleman whose gallantry would never have permitted so violently sexual a thought. He was deeply offended by the suggestion of sexual motivation on the part of the ape, and it took some profoundly apologetic words of innocence and explanation on my own part in order to earn back his eventual forgiveness and understanding of my impetuosity.

Another such misunderstanding occurred toward the end of our relationship when I wrote a series of articles for the then fledgling New York cinema tabloid, The Monster Times in 1972.  While I always both respected and cherished the cinematic milestone that Cooper had created in the infancy of sound back in 1933, and was in awe of the film’s wondrous stop motion photography created by Willis O’Brien, I always encountered difficulty with a particularly brief sequence toward the end of the film.  Early stop motion possessed a lovely archaic jerkiness which only served to further endear its primitive photography and personality to successive audiences. The ultimate crudity of early animation truly became a signature component of the character of these marvelous creations. That was why I took notice of the singular moment in the film when Kong climbs up the Empire State Building in a long shot taken from a distance away. The gorilla movement seems much too smooth in his climb, and the scene contains none of the signature jerkiness shown in all other shots of Kong. There even seems to be the suggestion of a sagging suit, however briefly, that would apparently betray a process filmed in another fashion entirely for the remaining moments of the sequence. In discussions with several fans, historians, and even a local special effects technician, I became convinced that there might have been an actor donning a gorilla costume, if only for several seconds of film, during that fateful climb. I published that opinion in my series of articles for The Monster Times. Cooper was understandably protective of his creation, and grew offended once more by my unfortunate insinuation. He swore repeatedly that only Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary visual effects were represented in the finished film, and that no human actor had ever donned a gorilla suit. Once again, I apologized profusely to Cooper, explaining that I was simply attempting to analyze and explain a somewhat controversial sequence in an otherwise flawless cinematic masterpiece. In a letter from Coop dated March 20, 1972, he wrote a note of clarification.  “That scene of King Kong climbing The Empire State Building was a very simple ‘special effect’ shot.  Anyone reasonably acquainted with ‘special effect’ works can tell you how it was done. Why don’t you ask Ray Harryhausen? I’m almost sure Willis O’Brien and I told him when I hired him for his first real animation job of consequence – ‘Mighty Joe Young.’  Consequently, I did ask Ray Harryhausen how he felt the controversial sequence might have been filmed, and sent me a detailed sketch by return mail explaining, in his own hand, how he felt the scene might have been photographed.

Merian Cooper, Willis O’Brien, Fay Wray, and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Additionally, when a subsequent installment of my series was altered, and its language dumbed down by the publisher to more easily appeal to young fans reading the issue, Cooper had difficulty understanding why I didn’t have more creative control over my own work.  When he was a reporter for the New York Times, he explained, the editor respected his “copy,” and never exerted unwelcome creative control over its contents.  I politely explained to Cooper that The Monster Times was not in the same league as the New York Times, and that I was not Merian C Cooper.

On March 30, 1972, I was surprised to find that Merian Cooper had sent me an urgent telegram. It read “Forgive my hasty, ill tempered letters.  You wrote about me most splendidly in your articles, for which I thank you. Seems to me petty detail if original New York showings was 100 minutes or not. Whole point is when cuts were made. When I go to Los Angeles will make check as, of course, I have full access to official records there of ‘King Kong’.  Best regards to Erwin and you – Merian C. Cooper.”

At about the time that my series of articles appeared in The Monster Times, I received a telephone call from two college professors who had read my work on “Kong,” and wanted to talk to me about incorporating my series into a new book that they were editing for Avon publishers in New York. Harry Geduld and Ron Gottesman, professors of film at Indiana University and Princeton University respectively, drove to my home in Philadelphia and took me out to lunch to pitch the assignment. I adapted my work from the original series of tabloid articles, and the completed essay became the lead chapter in The Girl In The Hairy Paw published in 1976 by Avon Books. The handsome edition, edited by Ron and Harry, became the very first volume ever devoted entirely to King Kong.

In a letter from Cooper dated March 27, 1972, he attempted to explain conflicting “cuts” of King Kong for separate preview audiences. He wrote that “The preview in San Bernadino in February, 1933, and the Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese March 24, 1933, had in the motion picture itself the long titles which I have sent under separate cover to you and Erwin. I cut these titles drastically for the March 2nd New York opening. Max Steiner scored separate opening title music for the long title opening and the short title opening. I planned it that way and personally edited both versions.” He went on to discuss the subsequently edited release versions of the film thusly. “The reasons for the cuts were voluntary by RKO, but not approved by me. If the original press book says 100 minutes – then the press book, as press books so often are, was wrong. The original New York opening was a little over 104 minutes. I have copies of my directions to the New York, and to the Hollywood openings – which I have looked up – giving exact running times each place. I think you write exceedingly well, Steve.  How can I expect you to know all of the immense detail of my picture ‘King Kong’?  I was wrong to let myself be disturbed over trivialities. I treasure the letters from you and Erwin – so no hard feelings from me.”

I received an additional letter from “Coop” written a day earlier in which he related some anecdotes about Fay Wray’s legendary screams in the finished picture. “She was down to see my wife and me last week, and we joked and laughed about the full day I had her work in the recording room – screaming!!!  Of course, I am sure you realize I had her do a number of variants for ‘King Kong.’  But when those screams were used in other pictures – often quite inartistically – I, for sure, didn’t like it. I had her scream up and down all the way along the scales – and I think I used them correctly. I liked them; Obie liked them; “Maxie” Steiner liked them – Monty Schoedsack didn’t. But I was the Boss – so I used them as planned by me from the outset. You no doubt got the cost of ‘King Kong’ from me…about $650,000.00. I have the detailed budget now before me. The total direct charges were $513,242.02, but I picked up a big portion of that ‘overhead’ which Dave Selznick had left behind him and charged $163,337.18 to ‘King Kong’ (though its actual overhead was only roughly $40,000.00.) Those were busy days. Simultaneous with ‘King Kong,’ I produced the first Astaire-Rogers picture, ‘Flying Down to Rio’; ‘Little Women’ with Katherine Hepburn; was her first Academy Award picture with ‘Morning Glory’ (part of which I directed myself) and a lot of others too.  And, I might add, took RKO – in my administration – from an $18,000,000 loss to a $5,000,000 profit – all in the midst of The Great Depression. Indeed, if I tell the unvarnished truth, I am the only man in all of RKO’s history who ever made the company profitable. All this is confidential to you as I am using it in my own book.” (Sadly, his own accounts of these transactions were never finalized or published.)

A week or so earlier in a letter dated March 22, 1972, Coop addressed the somewhat “sticky” issue of authorship of King Kong, so often ascribed to novelist Edgar Wallace.  He wrote “Just found my copy of Edgar Wallace’s ‘My Hollywood Diary.’ He arrived in Hollywood December 2, 1931, and the last day of his diary is on Sunday 7th February, 1932. He died a day or two later, as I recall it. On Wednesday, 6th January, 1932 he wrote in his diary on Page 170 as follows: ‘The next month or two are very important for me.  If this film gets over that Cooper is doing it’s going to make a big difference to me, for although I am not responsible for the success of the picture, and really can’t be, since the ideas were mainly Cooper’s, I shall get all the credit for authorship and invention which rightly belongs to him.’  This is the fact, not a publicity man’s dream!!! Always question advertising and publicity!!! Check your sources, so Winston Churchill once wrote. How right he was.”  In his letter of April 7, 1972, Coop admitted that “Kong” was not his favorite picture. “I’ve always considered ‘Chang’ my best picture,” he wrote, “though ‘Grass’ – my very first picture – is historically the best known of all my 4 pictures as either writer, director, or producer.  On ‘Grass,’ and ‘Chang’ I was all three – also some other pictures.”

 On January 18,1972 Coop wrote me of his relationship with composer Max Steiner. He writes “Did you know that I flew up to Los Angeles for Max Steiner’s funeral to give the final eulogy at Mrs. Steiner’s request? Did you know that ‘Maxie’ always gave me credit for first getting him to write ‘dramatic screen music’?  Of course, I didn’t write a note of it, but the concept was mine. Until ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ where my ideas were tried out a little, until I worked out with Maxie a full idea for his great dramatic screen score for ‘King Kong,’ nobody – but nobody – had conceived the idea.  At least Maxie said so.  He sent me magnificently framed original 1st sheets of 5 of the great scores he did for me in remembrance of our work together to ‘free the screen’ from the old fashioned techniques of the stage. I treasure it. It hangs on the wall of my den. He was a true creative genius, and one of my oldest and best friends. I admired and loved him. God rest his great soul.”

Cooper had always promised that if I ever ventured West, that he would be happy to introduce me to Fay Wray who he had enticed into starring for him in King Kong by promising that her co-star would be “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” I accepted his gracious invitation and hoped that upon some future trip to Los Angeles I might meet my beloved correspondent, as well.

I hadn’t heard from Cooper in several weeks, and began to wonder if he’d grown ill. To my utter disbelief and sadness, I learned that he had been admitted to the hospital and that he was gravely ill. I felt that I had somehow hurt him by believing that even a single frame of “Kong” had been filmed with a man in a gorilla suit, rather than by stop motion animation. Indeed, a Chicago newspaper had run an absurd story about some elderly gentleman claiming to have “played King Kong” in the original movie, relating his wholly fabricated story of how it felt to stand perched atop the model of The Empire State Building battling toy airplanes. I wrote an angry letter to the reporter who had filed the story, accusing his subject of being either a lunatic or a baldfaced liar. The reporter wrote me back an indignant letter, insulted by my insinuations, standing by his “sources,” and never printing a retraction.

Deeply concerned for Cooper’s health, I wrote an apology along with a get well card and sent it to him in the hospital. I soon learned that what I most feared had finally happened. This wonderful pioneering soul and visionary film maker had passed away. I was heart broken, and worried that he had slipped away without ever having seen my note of apology. I spoke with his widow, actress Dorothy Jordan, afterward and learned from her that he had indeed received my card prior to his passing, and that he had smiled when he read it. In a case of poetic irony that could only have occurred in Hollywood, both Cooper and his on screen persona, Carl Denham, passed away within hours of one another. Actor Robert Armstrong, who will forever be identified as “the man who captured the monster,” died on April 20, 1973, while his real life counterpart passed away on April 21, 1973.  Both Carl Denham and Merian C. Cooper returned home together, walking hand in hand, immersed in primordial mist beyond the legendary wall, on Skull Island.

When I finally made the trip to Los Angeles for the first time during the Summer of 1974 I had an opportunity to visit Fay Wray. I had secured her home address from Ron Gottesman and wrote her in advance of my trip. I told her who I was, and that I had known Merian C. Cooper somewhat intimately through eight years of intense and passionate correspondence, and that he had advised me that if I ever came West that he would introduce us. She wrote back a series of letters, and kindly asked me to telephone her when I arrived in town. I picked up the phone and telephoned her as soon as I got into town. She was, of course, retired and living in Century City, the wife of a prominent physician. I recognized her voice as soon as she answered the phone. I was actually speaking with Ann Darrow, the Girl In The Hairy Paw.  She invited my brother Erwin and I to come over to her high rise, and spend the afternoon with her. We arrived at the appointed time, and waited patiently for her in the lobby. The desk attendant said that we were expected, but that she had stepped out and hadn’t returned as yet. At last I saw her come through the door. She took my breath away. Even at age seventy, she was still a vision of loveliness, a wonderful remnant of classic, original Hollywood. She apologized for her late arrival, stating that he she had just come from the funeral of one of her dearest friends. I felt badly for her, and suggested that we might try and come back another time.  With amazing grace and dignity, I felt, she waved her hand into the air and said “No, life must go on.”

We spent two hours or more with Fay in her apartment talking about old Hollywood, and the making of both King Kong, and The Most Dangerous Game, its sister production.  She spoke lovingly of her friendships with Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schodesack, and Robert Armstrong whose character of Carl Denham, she remembered, was based solidly upon Cooper himself.  She said that she had remained in touch with each of them over the years and regarded them as close friends. When I asked her about her relationship with co-star Bruce Cabot, however, she grew silent and then said that she’d prefer not to talk about him. Cabot had won a reputation over his years in the film community as both a womanizer and something of a scoundrel. Apparently, these stories were silently verified by her reluctance to discuss him. She asked if I would mind going into her kitchen and pouring some cokes for each of us. I found the Coca Cola cans stocked in her refrigerator but, as I opened the first soft drink, it exploded in my hands and spilled over her sink counter.  I felt terribly about the accident, but she laughed graciously and excused my “accident.” She guarded her privacy at this point in her life, and wanted her fans and admirers to remember her as she was on the silver screen. Consequently, she politely turned down my request for photographs, but was kind enough to autograph many of the still photographs that I’d brought along with me for her to sign. We remained in touch for a time, but after she moved to New York I lost track of her. Her daughter, Victoria Riskin, went on to play her mother’s creation, Ann Darrow, in the briefly televised Volkswagen commercial in which a fully animated King Kong climbs to the top of The Empire State Building, then descends and makes his escape in a gigantic Volkswagen car. The very clever ad campaign was soon scrapped, as the executives at Volkswagen thought that the image of a gargantuan automobile betrayed their brand identification as a dependable small car.

Thanks to the generous intercession and kindness of “Coop,” I was able to begin a friendship through correspondence with Ray Harryhausen in February of 1966. The supreme animation genius had been a lifelong hero, and I was thrilled to commence a relationship that lasted from that day until his passing on May 7, 2013. However, because of his frenetic filmmaking schedule in Europe and in Spain, as well as his living now in England, our friendship had grown only through correspondence, as it had with “Coop.”  In 1981, as Ray was preparing to tour the United States while promoting what would be his last film, Clash Of The Titans, I learned that he would be making a personal appearance at Temple University in my hometown of Philadelphia. Needless to say, I was more than mildly excited by the prospect of finally meeting this brilliant motion picture technician whose career, along with Cooper’s, had so profoundly impacted my life. I drove to the University campus and walked into the lobby surrounding the auditorium where he would be making his presentation. Predictably, there were numerous fans and admirers gathered there in anticipation of meeting the great Ray Harryhausen. Not wanting to become lost in the proverbial shuffle and crowd, however, I resolved to locate the “green room” where guests of the University might be sequestered while awaiting their appearance. Happily, I found a door leading to a dressing area where a guest might be hidden away from his audience. Unhappily for me, the door was being guarded quite anxiously by an armed Temple University police guard who was obviously not in the mood for any funny business. As I approached the door I noticed that the officer was becoming increasingly agitated. He was perspiring profusely and, as I approached his appointed post, he instinctively placed his right hand upon his holstered weapon. I calmly explained that I wished to speak to Ray Harryhausen before the program began. He defiantly explained to me that I could just as easily wait with the other fans in the lobby adjoining the auditorium until Ray finally emerged.

Steve Vertlieb and Ray Harryhausen.

 After several somewhat tense moments in which I attempted to explain to Wyatt Earp that I was, indeed, a “friend” of Ray’s, and not merely a fan trying to connive my way into the room, the guard cautiously opened the door, allowing me to enter.  I tried to reason with him, explaining that if, indeed, I was lying and that Ray wouldn’t know who I was, that the guard had my explicit permission to kick my rump out into the crowded street.  As I entered the large room, I spied Ray and his lovely wife, Diana, seated at a small table having coffee.  Approaching them, I could quite literally feel the breath of my armed companion blowing hotly onto the back of my neck.  As I walked closer to the table, Ray arose from his chair.  I extended my hand in friendship and said “Ray, we have corresponded for many years.” He asked “What’s your name?” I answered “I’m Steve Vertlieb,” to which Ray’s mouth opened in amazement as he exclaimed quite loudly…”STEVE VERTLIEB?”  Turning to Diana, he yelled quite loudly “DIANA…IT’S STEVE VERTLIEB.” As this was transpiring, and as I was myself drowning in a self-manufactured sea of nervous perspiration, I felt the proximity between the guard and I grow ever wider. Ray clasped my hands warmly, and invited me to sit with them. This was to be only the first of many shared interludes with Ray Harryhausen over countless ensuing years, which included a special program in Baltimore at the Fanex Film Expo in 1990 in which I both hosted and shared the stage with Ray for a programmed event called “An Afternoon With Ray Harryhausen.”

Steve Vertlieb and Ray Harryhausen.

A year or so earlier, somewhere around 1980, I was able to make a trip to the home that Merian C. Cooper had shared with his wife Dorothy for many years until his death. The house was located in Coronado, California, and Erwin and I had been been invited by Dorothy to come and visit. She met us at the door, along with her son Colonel Richard Cooper. I was taken aback rather quickly as I noticed the striking resemblance between Dorothy and Fay Wray. Apparently, Cooper may have subconsciously cast his own wife in the key role of Ann Darrow in his film masterpiece. Their shared likeness was startling. Dorothy was very sweet and kind and showed us many of her husband’s mementos and artifacts. I held his original bound script for King Kong in my hands with his hand written notations. I was terribly excited and, frankly, stunned to turn around and see the famous caricature of Cooper directing “Kong” hanging quite prominently on the wall behind me. The drawing showed Cooper with megaphone in hand shouting “Make It Bigger…Make It Bigger,” and was a Christmas present given him by his cast and crew during December 1932. I found it difficult to hide my excitation over standing next to this fabled piece of art. Dorothy reminded us that she had appeared as an actress in films of the 1930s under the name of Dorothy Jordan, and that that she had actually come out of retirement, and returned to the screen as the woman whose family is massacred by “Scar” in her husband’s production of The Searchers, directed by John Ford in 1956.

Sharing an unforgettable afternoon with Dorothy (Jordan) Cooper, the widow of Merian C. Cooper, at their family home in Coronado, California, during September, 1980.

As we were preparing to leave Dorothy and Richard, after several hours of sheer magical conversation and memories, I grew emotional and said with tears filling my eyes that “I wish He was here.” Dorothy smiled, growing somewhat emotional herself, and replied simply…“He is. He is.” Dorothy would live another eight years. When I learned that that she had passed away in December, 1988, I telephoned the Cooper house and expressed my sadness to one of her daughters. When I explained who I was, Dorothy’s child became choked up and said “Oh, I remember you. Your letters meant to very much to my father.” That single farewell remembrance by the succeeding generation of Coopers brought a tear to my eyes, and a sense of final resolution to my heart. It had been a long, adventurous voyage upon often rough seas and alternately choppy waters with “Coop” aboard his beloved ‘Venture,” the embattled freighter that carried Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, and Jack Driscoll to Skull Island to meet their fate…and with them, my own.

 My association with Cooper and his larger-than-life creation has continued from my own childhood until now. In 1981, I was asked by legendary Philadelphia television children’s host Gene London to appear with him at The Philadelphia Art Museum for a one-hour lecture and presentation chronicling the making and production of King Kong before a live audience. Later, during the Winter months of 1993, I was invited to appear with Kong author and historian George Turner (The Making Of Kong Kong) on stage as a guest speaker at the venerable Gateway Theater in Chicago for the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the motion picture. George and I talked about the making of the film, and answered questions from an audience of some five hundred fans, prior to a 35mm screening of the historic motion picture, while Turner Entertainment sent over an “actor” in a gorilla suit to stroll about the theater lobby as King Kong. I couldn’t help wondering what “Coop” might have thought of the irony of that spectacle.

Together with American Cinematographer journalist, and co-author of “The Making of King Kong,” George Turner, at the official “King Kong” sixtieth anniversary celebration at The Gateway Theater in Chicago in 1993.

Merian C. Cooper remains a fascinating, legendary figure in the evolution and history of motion pictures. He was pioneer, and a founding influence in the development of the art of film. That this fabulous individual took such an interest in me and became my intimate correspondent and friend for the final years of his life is a source of perpetual astonishment on my part. He was larger than life and, in many ways, more colorful and gigantic than even the prehistoric ape that he created and so cherished. Eighty years have passed since Cooper’s King Kong first startled and thrilled theater goers around the world. As Carl Denham so triumphantly exclaimed to an audience of mere mortals, from the stage of the theater in which the immortal KONG was displayed to “gratify your curiosity,” the mythical creature was “A King And A God In The World He Knew.”  Much the same could be said of his creator.

 ++ Steve Vertlieb, March 2024

Kong at Yankee Stadium.

Speculative Sounds with Ursula K. Le Guin Part 1: Music And Poetry of the Kesh and Rigel 9

Le Guin in 1984, a year before Rigel 9’s release. (Harlan Ellison at left.) Pip R. Lagenta/CC BY 2.0

By RL Thornton:

Introduction: When we think about speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction and fantasy), we usually think about novels, movies, or TV. But there are authors and musicians who try to expand those visions into sound. Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those people. This week, we will look at two of Le Guin’s musical collaborations with Todd Barton (“Kesh”) and David Bedford (“Rigel 9”), and next week, we will discuss Le Guin’s collaborations with composer and music educator Elinor Armen.

“Kesh” and Always Coming Home: Originally, this collection was on a cassette that came with a deluxe first edition of Le Guin’s 1985 novel Always Coming Home. Le Guin teamed up with synthesist Todd Barton to create a soundtrack to her 1985 novel Always Coming Home.

But it was reissued by the label RVNG International to acclaim by periodicals Pitchfork, who deemed it a Best New Reissue that “highlights the rich, totally immersive art Ursula K. Le Guin sought to create” and UK’s Guardian, who called it “deeply weird and enjoyable” even though they mistakenly called it an “electronica” album”. The first edition of 1000 vinyl LPs sold out and it was reissued a second time in 2018.

Music And Poetry of the Kesh is definitely different. Much of it is grounded in woodland sounds and the majority of the tunes feature sparse solo and duo unaccompanied singing that occasionally plays against a drum beating out time. Those unaccompanied tracks seem immediate and recorded live but feel a little thin due to the lack of reverb. Most of them seem to be a little thin sonically, though Barton occasionally brings in his synths (“Heron Dance”) and uses multitracked voices for “Long Singing.” It is said that there are instruments designed for the album but I didn’t really hear anything new–there was one sound that resembled a didgeridoo in “A River Song,” possibly the long droning horn that I read about.

Previously, I rejected this album out of hand because it lacked sound production values, but this album didn’t make sense to me until I actually started listening to it and reading Always Coming Home at the same time. As Le Guin’s prose cast its spell over me as usual, the soundtrack actually made Le Guin’s novel come alive. The decision to make the tracks part of the local soundscape suddenly made sense. It felt like I was among the Kesh! I swear it was absolutely magic. Who knew that the choice to use a minimum amount of recording tech would work so well! I’m really impressed. If you are a fan of Le Guin and especially a fan of Always Coming Home, I would say this is a must buy.

“Rigel 9” and Bedford: Next, we have Le Guin creating a libretto for a literal “space opera” with composer David Bedford and the County of Avon Symphonic Wind Band. In this story, explorers from Earth land on Rigel 9, a planet that seems to be nothing but bizarre trees. When the party begins to explore the world, everything changes after one of them is kidnapped by intelligent life. Bedford’s songs are grounded in that jazzy 70s British prog rock sound reminiscent of bands like Gong, Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, and Henry Cow. Occasionally, I hear a brass band playing but most of the time it’s buried in the mix.

When the songs end and the spoken part of the libretto begins, Bereford’s blaring synths lay down weird background songs that are, well, like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s soundtracks for Doctor Who. Mix in the Dalek-ish robotic vocals that instruct the ship’s explorers, and Rigel 9 feels a lot like a rogue Doctor Who episode. My guess is the Bedford was trying to sell his rather unusual concept by deliberately pandering to the Whovians. Unfortunately, adopting the Whovian soundworld dilutes the work’s originality. The best part of Bedford’s musical setting is his cunning choice of ethereal female vocals to serve as the voices of Rigel 9’s inhabitants–literally unearthly and beautiful.

So what about Le Guin’s libretto? Honestly, it’s really meh for her and possibly the least interesting work that she has ever done, but even the least Le Guin is better than most. The explorer’s conversations are pretty flat and the characterizations are also flat, but the plot twist is actually pretty neat. Since this is on Apple Music and probably Spotify, I would suggest listening to Rigel 9 on those services before buying. And Whovians might want to try it too.

Interview With Michael A. Burstein, Editor of Jewish Futures 

Last year, Michael A. Burstein edited a new collection of original Jewish science fiction stories called Jewish Futures. Michael worked with Ian Randal Strock, publisher of Fantastic Books, to produce the book as a Kickstarter project, and it raised more money than any of the previous Fantastic Books anthologies funded through Kickstarter. They hit their top stretch goal, which was to do a second anthology of stories, and this time around, Michael is looking for Jewish fantasy as well as science fiction, even though the current working title is Jewish Futures 2. They are open to submissions now and plan to publish the book in the fall.

File 770: Michael, to begin with, tell us a little bit about the first Jewish Futures. Where did the idea come from?

MAB: Well, as I say to anyone who asks, I was inspired by the two Wandering Stars books that Jack Dann edited in the 1970s and 1980s. Wandering Stars was published in 1974, and it was the first time, as far as I know, that someone had put together a collection of specifically Jewish science fiction and fantasy stories. The book included a mix of original and reprint stories, and some of them have stayed with me all my life. Since then, there have been other Jewish SF collections, but I’ve always wanted to do a book that would be a spiritual successor to the Wandering Stars books. Fortunately for me, Ian Randal Strock, the publisher of Fantastic Books, agreed, and we managed to launch it last year by doing it as a Kickstarter.

File 770: And now you’re committed to a second book?

MAB: Yeah, and we really weren’t expecting that to happen! We included it as a stretch goal if we managed to raise twice the money we needed just to do the first book, and we actually reached that goal. So as it is, everyone who backed the project at $5 or more will get the ebook of Jewish Futures 2 for free, as that was the promised stretch goal. But obviously, Ian and I are hoping that enough readers out there will want to buy the book in print and that other readers will be interested in the ebook too.

File 770: This is the first time you edited a book of short stories, yes? Did you find anything surprising about the experience?

Michael A. Burstein

MAB: Just for the record, a few years ago I guest edited an issue of Apex Magazine. But yeah, this is the first book of other writers’ short stories that I put together. One thing that surprised me were the questions I got when we posted submission guidelines. It hadn’t occurred to me to state explicitly that we were OK with multiple submissions but not with simultaneous submissions, so we had to add that. We also had people wondering if you had to be Jewish to have a story in the book, and the answer is not at all. In fact, the first book includes a story by writer Shane Tourtellotte, who is not Jewish at all but did his research. I told him his story read to me as if he had swallowed a Talmud. 

As for the current book, we’ve had people ask if they could resubmit stories that I had to turn down for the first book. I’ve added to the guidelines that they are welcome to, but of course I hope they’re aware that these stories still might not get in, even if last time we sent them an encouraging note. Because, sadly, I don’t have the ability to purchase every story that gets submitted. There will no doubt be stories I read that I really like, but in the end, I simply won’t have room for, whether it is because they are too close in theme or idea to another story or for some other reason.

File 770: What makes Jewish science fiction different from other science fiction?

MAB: I suppose the obvious answer is that it has to have some sort of Jewish content. I could say something like, if you remove the Jewish content then you don’t have the same story anymore, and in a way that’s true. 

File 770: Are there any inherent difficulties in making a genre story also a Jewish story?

MAB: There certainly can be! One issue writers need to address is how to craft a story that is accessible to both audiences: Jewish readers and science-fiction readers. I had some stories submitted that dove deeply into the minutiae of Jewish religious practice and how technology might affect that, and I love those kinds of stories. But they need to be accessible to the reader who knows nothing or very little about such practices. Leah Cypess handled this well in her story “Frummer House,” about a non-observant Jewish family whose house AI gets an update that assumes they are religiously observant and starts trying to force observance onto them. By presenting her story in that way, she is able to introduce the more obscure concepts to the general reader as the story moves along. It’s kind of like how the protagonist in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series starts with amnesia. The reader gets to learn about the world he lives in along with him.

I would suggest that someone who writes a story dependent on Jewish minutiae run it by a few non-Jewish beta readers. Find out what they don’t understand and edit the story accordingly. But I will admit that it can be a difficult thing to balance, presenting an introduction to Jewish concepts for the readers who need it but also avoiding boredom in a reader who is already familiar with the concepts you need for the story.

File 770: Finally, as long as you’re offering suggestions, is there any advice you would give to writers trying to sell a story to Jewish Futures 2? Is there any way to improve their chances?

MAB: Well, other than the obvious thing, which is that you should write a good story, one thing to think about is how to be original with your concept and theme. For example, when it comes to Jewish fantasy, many writers look to the legend of the golem as a place to start. Now, there are some excellent golem stories out there; I even bought one for Jewish Futures: “Baby Golem” by Barbara Krasnoff. But in general, you want to consider that many other writers might also think about writing about a golem, and I’m not likely to take more than one unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

What I really want is a story that makes me think as well as entertain. I’ll put it this way: the stories I ended up accepting for the first Jewish Futures were stories that essentially lingered in my mind after I read them. They wouldn’t let me go. They were stories that made me go back to them, to read them again and again.

Meeting Piltdown

By Lee Weinstein: When I was a child, my father gave me a set of the illustrated New World Family Encyclopedia, published in 1954. One illustration that burned itself into my brain was composed of photographs of three sculptured busts of “cavemen” peering out from under the entry for “Man” in volume 12. They were labeled “Neanderthal,” “Piltdown,” and “Cro-Magnon”. The Cro-Magnon Man, aside from the pre-hippie-era shoulder length hair, looked like he could have been someone who lived down the street. But the other two, the Neanderthal and Piltdown men, had brutish faces and sinister straight-on stares that drilled into me.

It was in the ninth grade that I discovered Piltdown Man had been a hoax. My teacher told us that a little old man had confessed on his deathbed to creating the hoax. There had never been a Piltdown race. I went home and dug out my old encyclopedia volume. A hoax? He had even been assigned a scientific name, Eoanthropus dawsonii, which placed him in a separate genus from genus Homo. But there he was, staring back at me from the page. The face of someone who never was. The idea intrigued me.

Years later, I discovered that there was no little old man or any deathbed confession. There have been a number of candidates for the perpetrator of the hoax, including Charles Dawson, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Arthur Keith, Martin A.C. Hinton, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. But it is still a matter of debate. It was, nonetheless, a deliberate fraud. In 1953, very shortly before my encyclopedia had been published, Joseph Weiner, an Oxford anthropologist, had shocked the scientific world with the revelation that the Piltdown bones were artificially aged fragments of a modern human skull and an orangutan jaw. But the revelation was just a little too late to affect the encyclopedia entry. In popular culture, Piltdown Man already had a presence, from references in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels of the ‘teens and the Peter Piltdown comic strip of the 1930’s to the MacIntosh prototype “PDM” computer of more recent years.

He had entered my imagination as well. There was something about his non-existence that fascinated me. I decided that I wanted to meet him face to face. So I scanned the internet and plumbed the depths of the library stacks.

First, I took a closer look at the encyclopedia entry. Under the photographs was an attribution to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. That was a clue. I emailed the museum’s library and found out that the busts had been part of a major exhibit that was no longer there. The librarian had no idea of what became of them.

In the stacks of the Philadelphia library where I worked, I found a book called Men of the Old Stone Age (1915), by Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, which had more photographs of the busts in question, and others as well. The sculptor was identified as a Professor J.H. McGregor of Columbia University.

Further research revealed that in 1922, Dr. Osborn, then president of the museum, opened the exhibit, which was called “The Hall of the Age of Man”. The busts that had fascinated me had been specially made for the exhibit by Professor McGregor, who was a former student of Osborn’s and who became a Research Associate in the museum’s Department of Comparative Anatomy.

In scanning the internet, I also found another fascinating recent photograph that opened up further possibilities. It was of the familiar Neanderthal bust and posed with it was a Dr. Gary J. Sawyer, as well as a science fiction author I happened to know, Robert J. Sawyer, who had recently addressed the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

I sent Robert J. Sawyer an email and asked him about the photograph and how he had come across the sculptures. He replied quickly and told me that in researching his novel Hominids he had contacted Dr. Gary Sawyer (no relation to him) and Dr. Sawyer had invited him to come to the museum and get a behind-the-scenes tour. He suggested that I contact Dr. Sawyer and I could get a look behind the scenes in the museum as well.

I did so and Dr. Sawyer, a physical anthropologist, graciously invited me to let him know the next time my wife and I were in New York and he would show us around his department.

Sometime in 2001, Diane and I made the pilgrimage by rail from Philadelphia to New York. We were greeted by Dr. Sawyer, a slender, cheerful man in a white lab coat, who ushered us past the public exhibits and into his laboratory in the hidden recesses of the building.

He began by telling us that people who do such reconstructions should have artistic ability, a good knowledge of human anatomy and a background in anthropology. By way of modern examples, he showed us a replica of the “Lucy” reconstruction as well as some current projects being done in the museum.

He said he thought of himself as McGregor’s present day spiritual successor at the museum and bylined his papers G.J. Sawyer, in homage to J.H. McGregor. An anthropologist with a flair for the dramatic who clearly loves his work, he explained to us how he still employs McGregor’s techniques. An entire skull is extrapolated in clay from assorted fragments of bone. Next, layers of muscle, followed by the other soft tissues, are lovingly modeled over the skull, all to a carefully determined thickness. Ears, nose, and eyeballs are added. What had been a few pieces of a skull now has a human face.

In the office were the original busts of a Neanderthal, a Java man, a Cro-Magnon, and of course the Piltdown man that I had come to see. I saw now that the sinister and unnerving effect of the straight-on stares had been created by the pupils of the eyes being carven depressions.

Busts of a Neanderthal, Piltdown, and Cro-Magnon

We moved the life-sized plaster busts from his office and set them out on a long table, creating a veritable rogue’s gallery. The Neanderthal bust, we were told, was modeled on one of the earliest finds of skeletal remains in Chappelle-aux-Saints. He assured us that the Neanderthal bust is as accurate a rendition as any that have ever been done.

And then there was the Piltdown bust. Professor McGregor had no way of knowing that those bones he was given to work from had been deliberately doctored. Confronting Piltdown, and looking into his carved eyes with the hollowed-out pupils, I could almost hear him grunt.

I couldn’t resist taking a few photos, before thanking Dr. Sawyer and taking our leave. The one of Piltdown man, I framed and is still on display in my living room.

To most, he represents a fraud; an embarrassment. But to me, he represents imagination made concrete. He represents a reality where dragons still fly and unicorns graze.

When I looked, at last, at that face in bronze-painted plaster I knew that Dr. McGregor had done his best with the dubious bones he had been given. No, Piltdown Man never existed. But if he had, I know I can rest assured that this is what he would have looked like.