If you noticed, I have a thing for Chandler. If you didn’t – I have a thing for Chandler.
I particularly have a thing for his Rim Worlds milieu, but I can say honestly that I have read almost everything he has ever written for publication, a few things not originally intended for publication, and probably even a few things never intended to see the light of day, and I’ve never been truly disappointed. I haven’t always been wowed. A few (very few) of his stories have left me saying ‘um – ok’, but I’ve never had to give a negative review.
I’ve also seen the man writing – in the buff – and if you aren’t put off by an author who’s literally been stripped of all pretense and illusion, if in fact you can say you still enjoy his or her work, well then, you can only come to one of two conclusion: either they write some pretty damned good stuff, or you’re an unabashed, gushing fanboy. And please note that those two conclusions are NOT mutually exclusive.
Now truth to tell, seeing ‘Jack’ Chandler writing in the all-together was a second-hand photographic experience (his friends called him Jack and I would have been a friend if I’d ever had the chance to meet him), but I don’t really think that deflates my argument all that much. It is, however, certrainly much less awkward than experiencing it personally.
When someone has been stricken by unabashed gushing fanboyitis, no explanation is required if they are merely expressing their opinion (however over the top it might be) or somehow manage to keep it to themselves. (I’d keep back a few paces though. You never know when the geyser is gonna blow.)
Justification is only really required when the goal is to convince others to share the disease. So, on one level, I really don’t have to say anything else other than I really like his stuff and wish more people did too. On another level -
I ought to tell you a little bit about his stories. And say something about why maybe you’ll want to hunt up a few of them to read yourself. But first, a bit about the man himself.
He was a sea captain, working his way up the ranks of promotion in the merchant fleet, first of England and later of Australia. He served as an officer both during war and peace time. His travels during WWII took him to New York where he met with John Campbell, who encouraged him to write. Jack took up the challenge and sold his first submitted story.
The really interesting thing about the man’s personal history that informs his written work is – right now, in the real world, you can’t get much closer to being a starship captain than being a sea captain. Chandler recognized this and used it, bringing a level of work-a-day detail to his stories that has probably been equalled, but not by many. The degree of realism comes through on every single page; the man didn’t have to ‘make stuff up’, all he had to do was look across the bridge and substitute the inky depths of space for the blue expanse of ocean out the port windows.
This unique perspective for SF stories translates well to the page and immediately creates a background environment that is familiar and comfortable.
Enough about ‘Jack’. There’s plenty more biographical and autobiographical material on the official website for anyone who’s interested.
One of the major charges leveled against ‘old’ science fiction is that it lacks characterization.
Chandler’s work’s certainly qualify as old. His first story appeared in Astounding in 1944, his last novel was published in 1984. One of the reasons for writing this piece is that his ‘last’ John Grimes/Rim Worlds story has finally seen print in Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again anthology (available this month). The story – Grimes and the Gaijin Daimyo – is the only known Grimes story that hasn’t been previously published.
But so far as characterization goes – It simply isn’t possible for a character about whom 18 novels and 31 stories have been written to lack characterization. Simply. Not. Possible.*
Character Characterization is not the only character building that’s going on in the stories. In addition to the Grimes tales, there are at least eight more novels and at least a dozen more stories that share a common background – an internally consistent ‘future history’ that is at least as complex and as richly detailed as any other, including Niven’s Known Space and Heinlein’s Future History.
What other science fiction author can you name that has 25+ novels and 40+ other length stories devoted to the same consistent universe and ‘future history’? Right now, off the top of my head, my answer is ‘none’.
Another shaggy old argument against ‘old’ SF is that the stories are just ‘idea’ stories, with little to recommend them beyond nifty tech or nifty concepts that were out-dated four decades ago: computers operated by punch card. Invasive medical technologies. Telephones with dials on them. Shopping in person.
Let’s talk about tech for a minute. The man invented three separate and distinct faster than light drives – one of which still remains plausible today.
His first – the Ehrenhaft Drive – took mankind on its initial expansion to the stars. The ED essentially turns itself and the vessel to which it is attached into a charged magnetic particle, which then travels along the ‘force lines’ between stars.
Out-dated, yes. Unworkable, yes. But extremely important for two reasons: first – Chandler abandoned it. Second – this drive often failed, stranding its crew and passengers, who then – if they were lucky – managed to crawl to a nearby habitable world and set up a ‘lost colony’.
Lost colonies – human societies cut off from the mainstream – are meat and potatoes in science fiction lore. Chandler’s Ehrenhaft Drive gave him a tool he could use over and over again.
His third FTL drive – the Erikson Drive – only works on the outer edges of our galaxy where the fabric of space and time run thin. The Erikson Drive is hokey, involving an extra kick with a reaction drive when a ship is already at .9999 c. But it performs the trick of going FTL not by adding this extra push (a physical impossibility) but by pushing the drive and its ship into an alternate dimension.
This drive has the added virtue of ‘reversing its sign’ and allowing trade and relations with the beings that inhabit anti-matter worlds.
(The Erikson drive is only featured in one novel and a few shorts and various clues throughout those stories suggest that they are not truly canonical works.)
Chandler’s bread and butter was the Manschenn Drive, a time and space distorting gyroscopic affair made with moebius strip rotors. Chandler is sufficiently and properly vague about its inner workings that no holes can be poked in it (there’s nothing really to poke at); his descriptions of how it works properly intriguing and equally vague: the drive ‘moves ahead in space while moving backwards in time’.
Before the cosmologists jump on me with causality issues and the physicists attack – note that some recent hypothesis and even some experiments have seemed to indicate that some form of time-manipulation may be possible. ‘May’ is key, because that’s ALL you need to keep your science fiction science plausible. And Chandler gave due credence to the causality issues as plot devices and so was obviously aware that he was playing with fire. He didn’t shy away from it, he embraced it.
And unlike many SF authors who get entangled in the strangeness that appears to be the foundations of our universe, he didn’t even try to explain it or wrap it up in some pseudo grand theory of everything. Weird and bizarre things happen when you play with the Universe’s dice. Instead he concerned himself with the effect these things had on people and how they dealt with them.
The Manschenn Drive is not the only tech that Chandler introduced which has withstood the test of time. He was sufficiently familiar with the advance of technologies to realize that what was familiar to him (television with three channels, telephones with dials, no personal computers, etc) would not be what was used in the future. He was sufficiently sly to dress his future with devices that are cleverly vague and yet workable. His ‘playmaster’ device, a feature found on every spaceship and virtually every home, is telephone, radio, television, information retrieval and fact checker – home theater, video recorder, audio recorder. In short, anything you can do with media electronically is embodied in a single machine that you can interact with in a multiplicity of different ways – voice command, keyboard, radio, etc.
There are even ‘planetary networks’ – that serve as air traffic control, security system, long-range communications devices and that interact with individual shipboard playmasters. And all of this is activated and controlled in very ergonomic user-interfacey ways. No one apparently has to ‘learn’ how to use these systems, it’s intuitive. And we’re STILL trying to achieve that level of inter-connectivity and ease of use.
Finally, the boo-hissers say, that old stuff wasn’t literary enough. It was poorly written and doesn’t take 15 pages to describe the nap of the carpet and another 15 to mention the smell of the new roof shingles.
Ok, You got me. Chandler wasn’t a ‘literary’ writer. He could write, competently, interestingly, engagingly, but not literarilly.
Although he did write sufficiently well to get Australia to underwrite a ‘what-if?’ alternate history novel (in print as Kelly Country), one of the last novels he ever wrote. I think that in this particular case I’ll let the literary review board of an entire nation speak for Chandler’s competence in stringing words together.
Credentials? He’s got plenty. He’s won several Ditmars – the Australian Hugo award, some Seiun’s from Japan and was nominated for a retro-Hugo. His stories were steadily in print from the 50′s (with ACE) through the late 80′s (with DAW). He’s in the top 50 of all time SF authors who appeared regularly in Astounding SF, based on reader response. Two of his stories are amongst the most anthologized in the industry – The Cage and Giant Killer.
Those two stories alone have given birth to entire plot schools, being the seminal, original works to introduce the plot: The Cage gave birth to the ‘aliens think we’re animals’ concept, while Giant Killer set the bar for ‘mutated rats as competition for humans’ concept (not to mention one of the best ever ‘think like an alien’ presentations to appear anywhere, anytime in print).
Very well developed characters. A huge and consistent future history. Future tech that is still future tech. Writing that is at least acceptable to one country’s literary council.
Other than an inability to find his works, I can think of no other argument levelled against classic SF for which Chandler is NOT the exception that proves the rule. So I’ll answer that one by saying – every single day virtually every single one of his novels and collections are available on Ebay, ABE and Amazon – usually for a couple of bucks each.
Not only are Chandler’s works fully up to snuff in the light of today’s offerings, he’s a cheap read too!
Do yourself a serious favor and check him out. If you want to start at the beginning, visit the official Chandler site. For some additional detail, visit my concordance site. If you want to start reading about John Grimes’ adventures from the beginning, pick up a copy of The Road to the Rim. (I just got an ACE double version off Ebay for a buck.)
*John Grimes is probably one of the most fully realized characters ever created by an SF or fantasy author. He’s a righteous old bastard who keeps his own counsel, intelligent and crafty enough to get himself out of the messes he himself into, has no respect for authority just for authority’s sake, has a winning way with women and some well-developed ‘kinks’. He also smokes a pipe, prefers his gin pink and his women red-headed, doesn’t think all that much of convention (unless he’s the one trying to enforce the rules), can be a bit stuck up when it serves his purpose and can’t resist a lady in distress. John always ‘does the right thing’ even if it might take him a bit to get around to it, and it is very doubtful that you’ll like the way he does it.