The Badger Game

Never, not even in the deepest natural darkness that she had ever experienced, had she encountered an absence of light as total as this. It was unutterably dark, this was the Stygian darkness of which poets wrote. This was the pit of Acheron of which the creators of classic prose made mention. This was a kind of darkness that made thick, black velvet seem like chiffon by contrast. This was the kind of darkness that turned pitch into translucent polythene, when the two were placed side by side. This was the kind of darkness that made the wings of the raven resemble the pinions of the dove.... (R.L. Fanthorpe, Neuron World, 1965)

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.

Robert 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. But I digress.

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 supersede or supplant it, to provide a proxy, 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 a different 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 the innovatively titled 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 difficulties 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 infinitesimal fame and substantially 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? What was the literary taste of the Badger editor? Perhaps this entity was a low-grade droid, being so 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.

And lastly, why this book? There is a famous 1930 verse anthology called The Stuffed Owl, whose editors D.B.Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee saved fun-hunters a great deal of time by omitting good or average passages and including only the ghastly peaks of badness perpetrated by Byron, Keats, Poe, Tennyson, Wordsworth ('Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands') and the other usual suspects. The honour paid to them is now paid to Lionel Fanthorpe, who on his own turf can beat them hollow and probably arm-wrestle them flat by way of encore.

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.