It's a Fix-Up

In response to massive lack of demand, guru Langford again reveals SF writing secrets that can increase – almost without limit – your flow of rejection slips. Observe that I have nothing up my sleeve, and watch closely as

"Oh Brad! I accidentally clicked on this e-mail attachment with subject line I LOVE TO NUKE NEW YORK!"

"My God, Maisie, didn't you disable the Windows 2002 ActiveX First Strike Weapon Launch checkbox as I told you?"

"Oh Brad, I'm so sorry!"

"Never mind. The insurance will cover it. Pity about New York, though."

The literary technique illustrated here is what SF critics call a fix-up, where short fiction is shoved into irrelevant contexts or crudely welded together to fill out a book. Dangerous in the hands of beginners, the fix-up can nevertheless be employed by trained professionals to produce seriously crappy SF.

Some of the best and worst fix-ups came from A.E. van Vogt, who invented the term and used the method immoderately. For example, his early stories "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" feature horrendous alien nasties wreaking mayhem in a spaceship like something out of Alien (indeed so much like Alien that van Vogt eventually got a $50,000 out-of-court settlement from the movie makers). Simply by adding further episodes with weirder and sillier alien menaces, he expanded the stories into a whole novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

That one read pretty well, but elsewhere you'd get the lurching sensation of Van Vogt Yaw – John Clute's phrase for what happens when short stories are tossed into a novel and get seasick. The War Against the Rull is assembled from shorts about various differently nasty aliens whose names were all changed to Rull for the book (one lot were originally the Yevd) – so in each section the Rull tend to have confusingly different shapes and galactic-domination plans.

Best of all was van Vogt's thrifty use of his 1944 story "Far Centaurus", an entertaining yarn about a round trip through space to Alpha Centauri. Decades later, our author found that his current novel in progress (title mercifully suppressed) needed to be longer, and resourcefully sent all the characters off to Alpha Centauri. Once they got back, the original plot resumed as though nothing had happened.

The technique didn't die with van Vogt. When John Grant and I wrote our silly disaster novel Earthdoom, we shamelessly padded it out with four short stories (two from each of us), integrated into the text in a seamless yet astonishingly unconvincing way.

A recent surprise contender is Gregory Benford, who took up the challenge of writing a new Isaac Asimov "Foundation" novel despite having said about the originals, "I couldn't read those even when I was a teenager. They just didn't seem true or real; my memory is of saying, This is obviously not the way things would be."

So maybe his heart wasn't in it. Anyway, Benford's Foundation's Fear (1997) contains some odd and very un-Asimovian material, such as a theological debate between computer simulations of Voltaire and Joan of Arc. There's also a side trip of "Far Centaurus"-like irrelevance, in which for mysterious research reasons Asimov's hero Hari Seldon visits a planet where tourists go native by riding the minds of chimplike local aliens.

All was explained by the discovery that ecologically sound recycling was at work. Benford had simply dug out his two published stories featuring the AI Voltaire and Joan of Arc ("The Scalpel and the Rose", "The Eagle and the Cross"), plus one about entering the minds of chimplike aliens ("Immersion"), and shoved them forcibly into the Asimov universe. Where they shone with the delicate grace of a sore thumb.

So remember, whenever you're writing SF and the words aren't flowing, just flip through your directory of already sold or abandoned fiction, and through the magic of cut and paste you too can write like Gregory Benford or A.E. van Vogt!

"Oh Brad! I've done it again! I clicked on an I LOVE TO DESTROY THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE e-mail!"

"There's still one slim hope, Maisie. The totality of existence could yet be saved if Windows 2002 crashes while executing the script. It's a million to one chance, but –"

"This universe has performed an illegal operation and Windows 2002 is shutting it down. If problems persist, please contact the maker."

David Langford would not dream (P-K4) of using fix-up methods (Dear Tax Inspector, I am innocent of all charges) to pad his (Call me Ishmael) column.