Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides Of Used Matchboxes, And Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil
December 1994

Actually this is really Cloud Chamber 55, but I gather that Maureen gets bored with typing the same old banal names in mailing after mailing.... All thanks to her for saving me from Utter Shame last month by duplicating copies of Ansible 88 to replace those I 'knew' I'd handed over at Novacon.

Hey, fame has touched me at last. Slowly I scale the lower slopes of that Parnassus where our academic members purvey dissertations and critical papers: I've been invited to contribute the introduction to a US selection of worthy passages suitable for Jenny to read aloud to her children, or Andy to all of us. Without further ado, an exciting preprint follows....

The Badger Game

Reader, you hold in your hand a unique anthology. If you have read this far, you are now caught in the most intricate trap ever devised for one individual ... oops, sorry, wrong script.

Lionel Fanthorpe has long been a cult figure at sf conventions on both sides of the Atlantic, even in the times before he personally founded the Cymrucons in Cardiff, South Wales, and before he became a Reverend. I remember how at the 1980 British national convention in Glasgow, a certain shambling figure lurched drunkenly on to the stage during the 'Vogon Poetry Competition' and attempted to submit a true prose poem – being that fine passage about the disc ship's landing and what followed, to be found in Chapter Five of Lionel's March of the Robots. (Which will surely not have escaped this volume's compilers.) The screams of the audience were terrible to behold. Terrifying screams, weird screams, uncanny screams, awful screams, inhuman screams, alien screams, robot screams.... Some things were too rich, too exotic even for the cultured awfulness of Vogon poetry readings, and the swaying performer was loudly urged offstage. Reader, that shambling figure was I!

(Years later, I remember writer Graham Joyce contriving a stunning effect at a reading which interleaved this same immortal March of the Robots passage with lines from another work of almost equal stature, Guy N.Smith's Night of the Crabs. The listeners rapidly became a fear-crazed mob. Mixing your books can lead to a terrible hangover.)

Nowadays Lionel's 150-odd Badger titles are widely collected. I know several people who boast complete or near-complete sets, including the dubious cases where the author himself is no longer sure whether he or someone else wrote that particular one (under a Badger house name like John E.Muller or Karl Zeigfreid) but remains happy to sign the book anyway. Some of them have been reprinted in hardcover, and even pirated. Thanks here to Martin Hoare, who allowed me to consult his priceless first editions of works not in my own library....

To set the seal on his fame, our author even has his own lightbulb joke – improvised during a session at Orycon 11 in Portland and paying loving homage to the thesaurus-bashing which helped him through those mindboggling feats of dictation against time. 'How many Fanthorpe pseudonyms does it take to change a lightbulb, to replace it, to reinstate it, to substitute for it, to swap it, to exchange it, to renew it, to put another in its stead, to ...?' There is no recorded case of an audience having stayed around long enough for the answer.

The great thing about this astonishing body of work is the lack of any sour aftertaste from laughing yourself silly at its excesses. Legendary turkeys like The Eye of Argon may be irresistible, but isn't the fun larded with a certain guilty feeling that one is kicking an intellectual cripple? Be honest, now. With Lionel, it's not merely that the author doesn't object but that we're laughing with him – at the spectacle of an intelligent chap with a distinct sense of humour confronting impossible writing conditions. Under the cruel lash of John Spencer & Co (Publishers) Ltd, entire books had to be churned out in perhaps eight or twelve hours. Nevertheless deadlines were clubbed to death by the mighty Fanthorpe thesaurus, smothered with relentless padding, stunned by deus ex machina twists, placated by outrageous literary steals....

I was a schoolboy in the 1960s when I encountered my first Badger book, Beyond the Void, a title which even now gives me a nameless thrill. It opens with a spaceship in the grip of a furious magnetic storm, and something oddly familiar about the names and dialogue became clear when I reached the 'born to be hanged' joke: 'I still think he'll make the devitalizing chamber, though every cubic foot of space tends to argue otherwise, and the whole of the void opens its great maw to swallow him.' And sure enough, the ship soon makes a forced landing on this enchanted asteroid where exiled scientific wizard Rosper lives with his lovely daughter Darmina, a flying robot called the Leira Mark II, and the savage, scaly mutant Canbail.

But lazy old Shakespeare couldn't provide enough plot for the terrifying needs of a Badger novel, even after eleven pages of small print detailing every single move of the chess game between Darmina and Ferdin[and]. Following the tradition of various authors in other centuries who 'completed' The Tempest – feeling that Antonio in particular was inadequately repentant and bound to cause future trouble – Beyond the Void continues for several additional chapters in which future trouble duly comes, the plotters plot anew, Rosper regrets having broken his staff (in this version, his test-tube), the young lovers find marriage dead boring, and most of the cast ends up back on the asteroid feeling glum – the last line being Ferdin's not all that Shakespearean conclusion, 'Hell is other people!' (His italics.)

After which it was no surprise to encounter (in another novel whose title I forget) the Pardoner and Summoner from the Canterbury Tales plotting some dire wickedness on the spaceways. Or the chap in Negative Minus whose travels seem reminiscent of episodes in Homer and who is called Suessydo, his wife being Epolenep ... and of course this wanderer returns home to find the lady beset with suitors ('One by one, food and alcohol overcame the revelling princelings.'), whereupon he takes his enormous multi-charge hunting blaster from the wall – 'Few men would have had the strength to lift it, let alone fire it.' – and the rest is history.

And then there are those glorious pages of scene-setting info-dump in Forbidden Planet, which carefully list grid references for the 'sixty-four habitable planets federated to the Intergalactic Convention' and explain the spacegoing capabilities of certain alien races, with Garaks able to teleport only along diagonals and Pralos along grid lines, while 'Anything a Pralos or Garak could do a Gishgilk could do', and Zurgs not only leap askew through hyperspace but have horse-like faces, and.... One can only admire, and even more so when in Chapter Ten the human pawns realize that the situation strangely resembles a forgotten Earth game – enabling the author to have them explain the moves to each other all over again and laboriously re-map the entire grid to avoid the difficulty of algebraic notation. Thus the first move of the plot so far becomes P-K4. Eat your heart out, John Brunner: following devotedly in Lionel's footsteps, The Squares of the City appeared four years later.

When not being badgered to bizarre expedients, Lionel would occasionally slip in a perfectly respectable story which would lurk unnoticed between those terrible Badger covers, punctuated by the imprint's full-page ads for Joan the Wad, the Lucky Cornish Piskey, or – even more arrestingly – VARICOSE ULCERS, ECZEMA AND PSORIASIS. It was a cruel fate for the more seriously intended fiction. Even the austere and crabby Encyclopaedia of SF remarks that the loose supernatural series featuring Val Stearman and La Noire is 'of some interest', and I would agree – but this verges on the dread practice of literary criticism. Judging from his own introduction, Lionel will be after me with bell, book and candle if I dabble further in such accursed matters.

But we must mention the amazing mismatches of titles, back-cover blurbs and front-cover 'teaser' lines. The struggling author was required to submit a wide variety of all three after inspecting cover paintings churned out by some artist of little fame and less talent. Badger would then pick a combination they liked, more or less at random – leading to occasional Fanthorpean acrobatics, as when he desperately tries in Beyond the Void to establish the relevance of the strapline 'Part man part machine they possessed the worst qualities of both' to his pastiche of The Tempest. Meanwhile, who knows how many fine titles fell by the wayside? The Badger editor, to use the term loosely, was evidently susceptible to the scientifictional inclusion of a number: hence the remorseless progression of The Negative Ones, Zero Minus X, Reactor XK9, Formula 29X, Force 97X, Uranium 235, Barrier 346, Galaxy 666, A 1000 Years On ('Who were these fantastic women ..... why did they disturb his eternal rest?') and a clutch of titles featuring Infinity.

Reader, you are exhorted to turn the pages and enjoy. To pinch a line from the Works – frequently repeated with slight variations depending on the pseudonym our hero was using – what follows is a feast of prose in the tradition of 'the great 20th century science fiction writers Zeigfreid, Fanthorpe and H.G.Wells.' Two out of three ain't bad. •

Mailing 23Jenny. I'm a Kipling fan myself, and was drafted by David Pringle to do that essay for his St James Guide to Fantasy. The author's range seems widely forgotten: bits of the Just So Stories and Jungle Books have the force of myth (as cheekily acknowledged in The Book of the New Sun), but I also find it hard to forget the Indian stories, the ghost stories, the Army and Navy ones, the eschatological ones like 'On the Gate', the sf and fantasy, the inanimate viewpoints (locomotive in '.007', and all the components of 'The Ship That Found Herself'), the humorous extravaganzas and varyingly cruel practical-joke revenges (cf. the oddly linked 'The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat' – perhaps the funniest of these – and 'Dayspring Mishandled', a strange and poisoned story which starts in seeming high spirits and ends deep-frozen). Actually I must be irredeemable, since I even like the Kipling fix-up that hardly anyone has a good word for, Stalky & Co.Daniel. The Game of X is an old favourite here. The Pirx stories are relatively minor Lem, and his more typical works are less of an 'easy' read: ferocious punning and extravagant invention in The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, etc, or ferocious intellect in think-pieces like His Master's Voice or Solaris (the latter a bit bitty but still an impressive performance). I also like the essay collection A Perfect Vacuum. There is a persistent Lem theme of failed communication and the difficulty of detecting even sentience: the ocean in Solaris, the multiply interpretable message in HMV that may even be a 'natural' phenomenon, the reactive motes in The Invincible, the seemingly inert aliens in the flawed Fiasco, perhaps even the unliving serial killer born of mere statistics in The Chain of Chance.... • Rosemary. The main Usenet forum ('newsgroup') for our sort of thing is called rec.arts.sf.written, but has alarmingly high traffic for those of us who pay for our own net connections! • Tanya. Among my unfavourite US retitlings are The Spider Strikes (Michael Innes's highly literary don-detective novel Stop Press) and The Perfect Lover (Chris Priest, A Dream of Wessex ... which he wanted to call Interesting Times, only for the publishers to insist it was a boring title that wouldn't sell. Cut to 1994 best-seller lists and Terry Pratchett). Doom 2 boring? What a fearful admission, implying that you bought and played right through Doom 1 ...? •