Textbooks of the Argonauts

Every so often this page covers a story that hasn't ended, and later I wonder whether to add what happened next. My very first SFX column explored the terrors of Harlan Ellison's famously unpublished blockbuster anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Back then in 1995, I had no idea when this would appear. Now it's 2010 and... well, no change on that front.

What became of the new edition of the even more monumental Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, mentioned a few years back? The story so far is that I joined the second-edition editors John Clute and Peter Nicholls to sign contracts with Orbit for a third edition that would be published online. Nicholls later dropped out (or rather, retired upstairs as Editor Emeritus) owing to the ravages of Parkinson's disease, but Clute, myself and assorted volunteers beavered away until by late 2009 the work in progress ran to over 10,000 entries and 2.5 million words. The 1993 second edition had 6,571 entries, 1.3 million words. A huge difference.

But it's still an unfinished saga. After years in the gruelling textual wilderness, living on dried lizards and witchetty grubs, the editors no longer saw eye to eye with the publishers about how the Encyclopedia should be presented to the public (you). We parted company with Orbit on friendly terms, and found new backers from outside the sf publishing world. Speaking as the general editor who bashes others' entries into usable shape as well as writing new ones, I can reveal that assembling an encyclopedia is bloody hard work. At least half a million more words to go...

Meanwhile, whatever happened to The Eye of Argon, that dire sub-Conan fantasy by Jim Theis described here in 1998? This has long been an SF fan favourite in the "so bad it's good" category, a prose equivalent of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. Tatty umpteenth-generation photocopies are still treasured and read out at conventions. No one expected fresh news on a story whose origins were lost in the 1970s, but the 21st century saw amazing advances in Argonological scholarship.

First someone traced the 1970 Missouri fanzine where The Eye of Argon first appeared (OSFAN #10, journal of the Ozark SF Association), stashed away in a US library archive. This was vaguely exciting, since the original from which all known copies were made didn't include the last page. For over three decades, Grignr the barbarian hero had been stuck in a cliffhanger death-struggle with a blob monster whose initial unfair tactic was "to slooze up his leg." Worse follows: "The Nautous sucking sound became louder, and Grignr felt the blood being drawn from his body. With each hiss of hideous pucker the thing increased in size." Oh dear.

So it was a distinct anticlimax when that library'a copy was also found to be missing the last page – and the last but one. Our author Jim Theis, who created this epic clunker when only 16, turned out to have died in 2002 aged only 48. He never wrote another story, but gave huge pleasure to generations of fans who strained to read his strangulated and typo-raddled sentences aloud without giggling.

A complete copy of that rare issue of OSFAN finally came to light in another US fan collection in 2004. The ending was revealed and published! Whereupon several people declared it must be a hoax because its style was inferior, or not inferior enough.

In 2006 The Eye of Argon had its first professional trade paperback edition, from Wildside Press in America, with a learned introduction by researcher Lee Weinstein, and of course the long-lost climax. Of course, perhaps mercifully, Jim Theis wasn't around to see it.

In 2009 it emerged that another complete OSFAN #10 had lurked since the 1970s in an old friend's fanzine collection in London, unread. My pal could have solved the mystery of the lost ending decades ago, but gave his collection away without ever realizing it was in there. The Argon finale was exactly as reported in 2004 – definitely no hoax – and the inheritor of this priceless document arranged for scans to be made. True fanatics, or Argonauts as we call them, can now read an exact facsimile of the original. There's glory for you.

So, as "the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists," the full story of The Eye of Argon has at last been told.

Thinks: should Jim Theis get an entry in the SF Encyclopedia?

David Langford reveals more than you wished to know at ansible.co.uk/misc/eyeargon-intro.html.