"I Wish I'd Written That" was the self-explanatory title given to a trio of brief presentations at Mexicon (Harrogate, England, May 1991). In the event, Kenneth Bulmer wished so much that he'd written it, whatever it was, that instead he stayed at home and wrote it. Brian Stableford planned to read out some dreadful plot outlines for hack fantasies based on role-playing game worlds, and to wish aloud that he'd actually been paid to write the junk ... but in the end he was overcome with shame and gave an impromptu talk on homeopathy. (Don't ask.) And I too performed the traditional rite of the cop-out, in my own way:
For a while I thought I would be morally worthy and choose something of classic status, probably G.K.Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday -- which has now been continuously in print for 83 years. Of the books I enjoyed as ripping action-adventure in the 1960s, there are very few I can bear to think about, let alone reread with enthusiasm, now that we're in the 1990s and I'm almost as elderly and doddering as Chris Priest. Thursday is one of the survivors. You can argue that it's a theological thriller, or the ultimate conspiracy-theory novel, or a prophetic parody of a million then unwritten stories about spies and double-agents, or even a work of surrealism. It's partly a nightmare of social disintegration, partly a Mystery in the double sense, and often very funny. Once, by talking fast about Angst and metaphysical dread, I managed to sneak it into a listing of the 100 Best Horror books and was severely handled by purists ("Langford defends the indefensible," etc).
But wishing to have a grubby finger in something from so long ago is cheating: The Man Who Was Thursday couldn't have been written in my lifetime. So next I considered a short story which if you wear the critical high hat is fairly easy to dismiss as a meretricious bag of tricks with pronouns, trashy melodrama, obsessive repetitions and dotty science ... yet somehow it works. It digs its way into your memory and whole paragraphs stay there dancing all night when you'd prefer some peace and quiet. It hooks me every time, from the first sentence: "He doesn't know which of us I am these days, but they know one truth."
Yes, it's Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" from 1954, when he was on top form and I was learning to talk. Bester was always fascinated by the idea of maddening jingles and rhythms that you couldn't forget. This was the closest he came to writing an entire story to one lunatic tune ... until it seems entirely logical for the narrator or narrators to explain: "If you live with a crazy man or a crazy machine long enough, I become crazy too."
But then, in a burst of self-revelation, I thought: this wish is also subtly untrue. In my blackest, innermost heart, what I really want to have written is something that makes an obscene amount of money. Even a mildly indecent amount would do. I therefore boldly went to the Great Review Copy Mountain that dominates our home, and selected the first thing I could find by a truly prolific and famous author in our field. The time had come to expose myself to the secrets of mega-success.
It was an eye-opener. I'd been too long away from the Real Stuff. This wasn't merely the seventh book in a fantasy series but a seminar in advanced post-feminist thought. In Chapter 2 I had my consciousness raised almost beyond the ozone layer by a telling scene in which supernatural powers teach a woman a moral lesson by changing her into a man. Instantly and uncontrollably she (or he) is smitten with rampant lusts of the body and starts to rape the other woman present.
To make the point absolutely clear, a snap of magical fingers reverses the situation. The first woman is back to her normal, beautiful self; the second becomes a hairy chap and (despite retaining both complete free will and the memory of what has just happened) is overcome all of her own accord with "passion so compelling that it admitted of no interference" ... and it's rape time again.
Why so? "She had been helpless before her abrupt desire," explains the author afterwards, and goes on to hammer home his moral. (Had you begun to wonder if the author might be male?) Both women are restored to normal and one of them muses, wide-eyed, on the learning experience: "It seems that men have passions that women do not."
The implications of this sensational leap in understanding are worked out in detail. For example, there's a middle-aged fellow in the book who likes to have it off with (consenting) underage groupies: the women now regard him as almost literally godlike, in part for the amazing male self-control he shows in not raping his way through his entire female acquaintance. Every spotty teenaged lad who reads this fantasy can walk proudly down the street (as indeed I did), knowing how grateful all those passing women would be if they only realized the titanic restraint he's exerting to tame those raging glands and spare them the Joy of Sex.
You can see what superlative reader psychology must lie behind such a ground-breaking contribution to sexual politics. Any guesses as to the author? No, not John Norman. Yes, Piers Anthony, and the hugely selling book is called And Eternity (another one to cross off your list).
It's no wonder I remain poverty-stricken. Every once in a while I wish my natural embarrassment didn't stop me writing lucrative stuff like this. Or maybe it's just cowardice, applied to all those books I sometimes wish I could get away with having written.
|First published in The New York Review of SF 35, 1991.|
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