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I like to post Planet Stories notes to this blog when the mood strikes. Take a look at the posting times of some of the entries here, and you’ll see that some of the posts come late at night, others over lunch breaks, and sometimes in the middle of the day. I launched this blog because the sorts of review round-ups, guest postings, and in-depth nerdery I post here isn’t really appropriate for the “official” Planet Stories blog, which is to say the formal blog at the Paizo Publishing website.

I love that website like a child, and post frequently to the message boards. We’ve had a great Planet Stories Requests thread going for a couple of years, and I love chatting with Paizo readers, be they gamers, fans of vintage science fiction, or random walk-ons from the deepest corners of the World Wide Web.

But the blog over on Paizo.com is a formal affair. One post a day. Every post goes through our editing department, and then gets sent to our web team for coding and posting. Everyone knows this is an inefficient, sub-standard way of doing things, but the truth is that a growing publishing company with only a couple of web guys has more pressing concerns related to sales, message boards, and the like than making the blog more user friendly and easier for the staff to use.

I’m writing this post, for example, from the San Jose airport, having just completed a very successful World Fantasy Convention. Were I to send it in to the boys at Paizo, it would be at least 48 hours before it got posted, and that’s only assuming we didn’t have more strategically important posts on the schedule and assuming the editors and web team had enough time to look it over and throw it online.

As it happens, I don’t always have that kind of patience.

In short, saying “Hey, check out what Joe Reviewer just said about Robots Have No Tails!” isn’t really an appropriate way of spending the company’s resources, and it’s frankly a much bigger pain than it ought to be. As a result, that sort of post goes here. For a long while my editors, James Sutter and Chris Carey, were doing a good job posting monthly Planet Stories entries to the official Paizo blog, but with the extremely successful launch of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the attendant ramp-up in our production across the board, they haven’t had much time to post about our novel line.

When it came time to discuss our newest release, A. Merritt’s THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, my beleaguered editors looked to me with puppy dog eyes, asking me to write a piece on the importance of the book and why I selected it for the line. Since this was one of my selections, since I knew I’d have some spare time during the convention, and since it’s virtually impossible to get me to shut up about Planet Stories once I get started, I of course agreed immediately to write the piece.

This is all a very long way of saying “My Ship of Ishtar post just went up on the official Paizo blog. You should read it.

Please forgive any typos in this unofficial blog update. It was written in an airport and hasn’t been proofed.

On the up side, it will post about three seconds after I hit the “publish” button…

Web Coverage Round-Up

It’s been a while since I last posted here, due mostly to the HUGE release of Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook and the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary. That’s about a thousand pages of gaming material, and the initial releases of the Core Rulebook sold out before we even got it in our warehouse, and the Bestiary (which hits stores next week) is looking like a success of similar proportions. This has resulted in “that’s a good problem to have, but a problem none the less” becoming my official slogan of the last three months. Selling out huge print runs is indeed a problem, and involves all sorts of priority (and money) juggling and a laser focus.

In light of all of this, it’s a bit difficult to remember that Pathfinder is not Paizo’s only brand, and that we’ve got lots of great classic science fiction to publish as well. Sure, the craziness has delayed Planet Stories shipments a bit, but with the chaos largely behind us and the latest Planet Stories volume on its way to subscribers, it’s time to take another look at what’s been going on lately, and what’s coming down the pike.

PZO8005-Cover.inddThat new book I mentioned above is actually 85 years old this year, but it hasn’t been published for decades. I’m speaking of A. Merritt’s THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, surely one of the finest classics of fantasy ever published. Merritt was once counted among the finest fantasy writers in America, and while “in the know” readers recognize his talent and influence to this day, most of the modern audience has never heard of him.

That modern audience, I’m sorry to say, also includes book buyers, and while THE SHIP OF ISHTAR is probably the best-written and is certainly the best illustrated (thanks to 10 plates by the legendary Virgil Finlay rescued from two previous editions and collected here for the first time) Planet Stories book to date, it also has some of the lowest pre-orders on record. I expect reader reaction to be very positive on this title, and hold out hope for a “slow success,” but these things are not exactly going to be falling off off the shelves of your local bookstore, so ordering direct from Paizo.com may be your best bet to pick up this truly remarkable book.

Hey, the guys over at the Robert E. Howard blog The Cimmerian are really excited about THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, and they really know their stuff. Editor Deuce Richardson just called it “the best edition of this landmark fantasy novel in 60 years,” and I couldn’t agree more (admittedly, with a bit of bias).

Speaking of The Cimmerian, the site recently posted a glowing review of Leigh Brackett’s THE SWORD OF RHIANNON, one of my personal favorites from the 23 books Planet Stories has thus far released. Here’s what Deuce had to say about this one:

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Leigh hadn’t been in the writing game quite a full decade when she penned The Sword of Rhiannon and was yet to come into her full powers as an author. That said, Brackett had obviously found her own voice at that point, assimilating her influences and carving out her queendom in the science-fantasy field. The Sword of Rhiannon moves at a relentless pace and is filled to the brim with plot-twists and reversals of fortune. Carse is a “damaged hero” in the classic Brackett mold who hews and schemes his way across a gorgeously-imagined world. The Sword of Rhiannon was a milestone in Leigh Brackett’s career and is a novel well worth reading today.

I couldn’t agree more! Of course, if Leigh Brackett is your flavor of choice, Planet Stories has plenty of excellent adventure in store for you in the other four Brackett novels we’ve published to date. There’s the famous SKAITH TRILOGY (THE GINGER STAR, THE HOUNDS OF SKAITH, and THE REAVERS OF SKAITH), of course, all of which feature her influential and thoroughly awesome swordsman Eric John Stark of Mercury, one of science fantasy’s original outlaws.

PZO8006_180Prominent gamer Joe Kushner recently picked up the first Eric John Stark Planet Stories book, THE SECRET OF SINHARAT, which features two revised Stark novellas that originally appeared in the magazine Planet Stories in the 1940s. Kushner takes an interesting reviewing approach, riffing off of ideas found in the book and extrapolating how they might be used in an RPG campaign. I found this perspective quite interesting, and suspect you will too.

More has happened in the last month or so, but this post is already getting a little long in the tooth. I’ll be sure to come back soon!

Until then, don’t be a stranger. Please post a comment here on the blog. It’s nice to know someone is out there actually reading this stuff!

Erik’s Note: I recently composed this for my personal blog, Paperback Flash, but I figured it would also be interesting to readers of the official Planet Stories blog, since it’s about one of the most important books of one of our most important writers, C. L. Moore. Enjoy!

Judgment Night (1965)

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911 – 1987) was one of the finest fantasy and science fiction writers of the Pulp Era, contributing two characters of historical significance in the form of Jirel of Joiry, the first female sword & sorcery protagonist and Northwest Smith, a spacefaring scoundrel who very likely served as a template for Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Later, her collaborations with husband Henry Kuttner (often published under the byline Lewis Padgett) would go on to become bedrock classics of the genre. Moore is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and her status as one of the grand masters of the pulps is a given.

I particularly enjoy her writing, which my friend Kenneth Hite once described as “Clark Ashton Smith on Cialis.” When I first encountered her lushly described, vivid prose, I immediately thought of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, though my reading in the last few years has traced this influence even farther back to Abraham Merritt, the giant of the early 20th century whose The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar (among others) cast looming shadows over the Pulp Era. Moore’s use of language and many of her themes are perhaps best described as “Merrittesque,” though her stories often involve a sensual, in some cases barely disguised sexual element that makes them stand out from many of their staid contemporaries in the Pulp Era. Though her influences are clear, C. L. Moore is very much her own writer, and a great one at that.

Here’s an example of her writing style, in this case describing a gown specially designed for the lead character of Judgment Night, Juille, the heir to a powerful galactic empire in the days leading to its inevitable fall:

The best dress designer on Cyrille seemed to be a soft-voiced, willowy woman with the pink skin and narrow, bright eyes of a race that occupied three planets circling a sun far across the outskirts of the Galaxy. She exuded impersonal deftness. One felt that she saw no faces here, was aware of no personalities. She came into the room with a smooth, silent aloofness, her eyes lowered.

But she was not servile. In her own way the woman was a great artist, and commanded her due of respect.

The composition of the new gown took place before the mirrored alcove that opened from the bedroom. Helia, her jaw set like a rock, stripped off the smart military uniform which her mistress was wearing, the spurred boots, the weapons, the shining helmet. From beneath it a shower of dark-gold hair descended. Juille stood impassive under the measuring eyes of the newcomer, her hair clouding upon her shoulders.

Now she was no longer the sexless princeling of Lyonese. The steely delicacy was about her still, and the arrogance. But the long, fine limbs and the disciplined curves of her body had a look of waxen lifelessness as she stood waiting between the new personality and the old. She was aware of a certain embarrassed resentment, suddenly, at the step she was about to take. It was humiliating to admit by that very step that the despised femininity she had repudiated all her life should be important enough to capture now.

The quality of impassivity seemed to puzzle the artist, who stood looking at her thoughtfully.

“Is there any definite effect to be achieved?” she asked after a moment, speaking in the faintly awkward third person through which all employees upon Cyrille address all patrons.

Juille swallowed a desire to answer angrily that there was not. Her state of mind confused even herself. This was her first excursion into incognito, her first conscious attempt to be—feminine; she disdained that term. She had embraced the amazon cult too wholeheartedly to admit even to herself just what she wanted or hoped from this experiment. She could not answer the dresser’s questions. She turned a smoothly muscular shoulder to the woman and said with resentfulness she tried to conceal even from herself:

“Nothing … nothing. Use your own ingenuity.”

The dresser mentally shot a keen glance upward. She was far too well-trained actually to look a patron in the face; but she had seen the uniform this one had discarded, she saw the hard, smooth symmetry of the body and from it understood enough of the unknown’s background to guess what she wanted and would not request. She would not have worked her way up a long and difficult career from and outlying planet to the position of head designer on Cyrille if she had lacked extremely sensitive perception. She narrowed her already narrow eyes and pursed speculative lips. This patron would need careful handling to persuade her to accept what she really wanted.

“A thought came to me yesterday,” she murmured in her soft, drawling voice—she cultivated the slurred accent of her native land—”while I watched the dancers on Dullai Lake. A dark gown, full of shadows and stars. I need a perfect body to compose it on, for even the elastic paint of undergarments might spoil my effect.” This was not strictly true, but it served the purpose. Juille could accept the gown now not as romance personified, but as a tribute to her own fine body.

“With permission, I shall compose that gown,” the soft voice drawled, and Juille nodded coldly.

The dresser laid both hands on a section of wall near the alcove and slid back a long panel to disclose her working apparatus. Juille stared in frank enchantment and even Helia’s feminine instincts, smothered behind a military lifetime, made her eyes gleam as she looked. The dresser’s equipment had evidently been moved into place behind the sliding panel just before her entrance, for the tall rack at one end of the opening still presented what must have been the color-selection of the last patron. Through a series of level slits the ends of almost countless fabrics in every conceivable shade of pink showed untidily. Shelves and drawers spilled more untidiness. Obviously, this artist was great enough to indulge her whims even at the expense of neatness.

She pressed a button now and the pink rainbow slid sidewise and vanished. Into its place snapped a panel exuding ends of blackness in level parallels—satin that gleamed like dark water, the black smoke of gauzes, velvet so soft it looked charred, like black ash.

The dresser moved so swiftly and deftly that her work looked like child’s play, or magic. She chose an end of dull silk and reeled out yard after billowing yard through the slot, slashed it off recklessly with a razor-sharp blade, and like a sculptor modeling in clay, molded the soft, thick stuff directly upon Juille’s body, fitting it with quick, nervous snips of her scissors and sealing the edges into one another. In less than a minute Juille was sheathed from shoulder to ankle in a gown that fitted perfectly and elastically to her skin, outlining every curve of her body and falling in soft, rich folds about her feet.

The dresser kicked away the fragments of discarded silk and was pulling out now such clouds and billows of pure shadow as seemed to engulf her in fog. Juille almost gasped as the cloud descended upon herself. It was something too sheer for cloth, certainly not a woven fabric. The dresser’s deft hand touched lightly here and there, sealing the folds of cloud in place. In a moment or two she stepped back and gestured toward the mirror.

Juille turned. This tall unknown was certainly not herself. The hard, impersonal, perfect body had suddenly taken on soft, velvet curves beneath the thick soft fabric. All about her, floating out when she moved, the shadowy billows of dimness smoked away in drapery so adroitly composed that it seemed an arrogance in itself.

“And now, one thing more,” smiled the dresser, pulling out an untidy drawer. “This—” She brought out a double handful of sequins like flashing silver dust and strewed them lavishly in the folds of floating gauze. “Turn,” she said, and Juille was enchanted to see the tiny star points cling magnetically to the cloth except for a thin, fine film of them that floated out behind her and twinkled away to nothing in midair whenever she moved.

Juille turned back to the mirror. For a moment more this was a stranger whose face looked back at her out of shining violet eyes, a face with the strength and delicacy of something finely made of steel. It was arrogant, intolerant, handsome as before, but the arrogance seemed to spring now from the knowledge of beauty.

And then she knew herself in the mirror. Only the gown was strange, and her familiar features looked incongruous above it. For the first time in her life Juille felt supremely unsure of herself. Not even the knowledge that the very stars in the Galaxy were subject to her whim could help that feeling now. She drew a long breath and faced herself in the mirror resolutely.

So far, Planet Stories has reprinted collections of C. L. Moore’s two most popular characters, Jirel of Joiry in Black God’s Kiss and Northwest Smith in Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith. Reviews for both collections have been very positive, somewhat surprising for fiction that is closing in on being eight decades old.

A lot of the reviews highlight a specific weakness of her Jirel and Smith stories, a stylistic nuance that becomes much more pronounced when all of a given character’s adventures are collected in the same volume. The problem is this: Although Moore’s worlds are vividly realized, and her use of language and beauty of structure easily set these tales apart as classics, her classic characters don’t really do much of anything in the stories themselves. Rather, they watch as something very interesting happens to other people. They often emerge victorious against their enemies by tapping some inner strength or reserve, or taking some internal journey. Though Jirel comes armed with a sword and Northwest Smith packs his trusty heat gun, the weapons usually remain holstered and the stories are more psychological horror that action adventure.

Not so here, in Judgment Night which almost seems to have been written in reaction to that specific criticism. Far from a wallflower, Juille spends the last several chapters of the book literally blowing apart an entire planet with an unthinkably powerful super-gun. It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse scene filled with carnage, collapsing buildings, and all sorts of entertaining mayhem.

Originally written as a two-part serial in 1943′s Astounding (edited by that titan of early SF, John W. Campbell, Jr.), Judgment Night came 10 years after Moore’s Weird Tales debut, when most of the Jirel and NWS stories were already behind her. It’s a transitional piece, of sorts, bridging the early era populated largely by her Jirel and Smith stories and her later material (much of it also published by Campbell) written in collaboration with her future husband, Henry Kuttner (the two were married in 1940, but this story shows very little if any Kuttner influence and has never been credited to him).

The legendary Gnome Press published a hardcover edition of Judgment Night in 1952, complete with an effective cover from Frank Kelly Freas. That edition also included the short stories “Paradise Street,” “Promised Land,” “The Code,” and “Heir Apparent,” a good selection of Moore’s non-series character, non-Kuttner material. The 1965 Paperback Library version I read (pictured above) lacks these stories, focusing only on the title tale.

Although I like the Gnome Press edition and the other tales included therein are worthy additions to Moore’s canon, Judgment Night easily stands on its own as a great classic of Pulp Era science fiction.

Noted RPG author and fantasy critic Kenneth Hite has just posted a review of the Planet Stories edition of C. L. Moore’s Northwest of Earth at Flames Rising. In the review, Hite takes on the common remark that Moore’s hero Northwest Smith set the mold for Han Solo, and makes a number of interesting observations about the stories in our collection.
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No, Smith may inhabit a solar system of Martian canals and Venusian swamps, but his adventures are less SF than a kind of lush, operatically colored noir. (Dario Argento instead of Sternberg?) As in noir, Smith can depend on nothing but his instincts to guide him: “a bed-rock of savage strength” is his real gift, an unbreakable will to survive as an individual that saves him time and again. He’s more Man With No Name than he is Han Solo. The world is strange, the city unfriendly (Smith spends a lot of time in various wretched hives of scum and villainy on Mars and Venus), and the girl … well, the girl is always the heart of the problem.

In the course of his review, Hite manages to coin my favorite phrase to date in a Planet Stories review: “This opalescent fog of language is the best thing about the stories; Moore reads like Clark Ashton Smith on Cialis.” That sounds very appealing, and makes me wish we were going to reprint immediately so I could put it on the back cover.

If you enjoy Ken’s review, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of his latest critical work, Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, which includes a short critical essay on every single story Lovecraft published under his own byline. It’s an amusing, insightful work sure to be of great interest to all Planet Stories readers.

PZO8005-Cover.inddThe Reavers of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett, is the final novel in the saga of Eric John Stark, Brackett’s most beloved SF character. It’s the fourth of the five Brackett books Planet Stories has published to date, with a stunning cover by James Ryman and an introduction by film director George Lucas, who discusses Brackett’s role in writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back and her influence upon the entire Star Wars saga. We were blown away that Lucas was able and willing to write such a thoughtful introduction for us, and this book looked like it had everything going for it and would become one of our strongest sellers.

But everything does not always go over as planned. For unknown reasons (and this happens more often than most publishers would admit), Barnes & Noble simply decided to skip this book entirely, so despite all it has going for it the book has not had the robust distribution of many of our other titles. While that probably will mean fewer returns and a more steady journey to profitability in the long run (the same thing happened to Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis), it has the unintended effect of limiting the online discussion of the book to a relative whimper.

I was surprised and pleased, then, to find a fairly recent review of The Reavers of Skaith posted to the entertaining blog My Own Private Geekdom, a LiveJournal administered by gamer and sci-fi fan Joel Flank. Check out what Joel has to say about the book:

Stark remains a ruthless killer and the ultimate survivor, with a combination of trained fighting prowess and animal instincts keeping him alive. Brackett once again spins a compelling story that gets the blood pumping and grabs the reader and won’t let them go until the conclusion of the story.

If you haven’t yet seen a copy of The Reavers of Skaith at your local store, don’t despair! You can order directly from the publisher at Paizo.com.

PZO8005-Cover.inddJames Enge, author of the new sword and sorcery novel Blood of Ambrose from Pyr, posted a truly excellent review of the Planet Stories edition of Henry Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails yesterday. It’s the latest post on what is shaping up to be one of the more interesting pulp fiction blogs on the Intnernet, over at the homepage for Black Gate Magazine, which is probably the most pulp-like of any fiction magazine on the market today (which certainly makes it one of our favorites). I urge you to pop over and read James’s great review, but take a while and stick around for other insightful blog posts from a wide range of Black Gate authors and supporters.

As to the “perfect book”–the new issue from Paizo Press’ Planet Stories line, Henry Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails, may not be perfect in some absolute sense (although it comes pretty close) but it’s certainly one that I and others have been looking forward to for years.

Thanks for the kind words, James! We’d love to publish more Henry Kuttner (I’m currently reading a great never-reprinted novel from Startling Stories that is just begging to be published). If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out Robots Have No Tails and would like to see more work by Henry Kuttner, please do pick up a copy! Your purchase could be the one that puts us over the top on getting more of his excellent work in print.

In Praise of James Blish’s Star Trek adaptations

By Alex Bledsoe           StarTrek cover Blish 

I was a second-generation Star Trek fan.  I discovered the series in syndication between the end of the show’s network run in 1970 and the first movie’s release in 1979.  The reruns were broadcast on Channel 13 out of Memphis, usually the fuzziest of the three or four stations we could get out in the swamps.

 That’s an important bit of context.  We had no cable TV back then; instead, we had a thirty-foot aluminum antenna that someone, usually me, had to physically turn while someone else, usually my dad, shouted whether the picture was better or worse.  Weather determined a lot of what we watched: the ABC station in Jackson was closest, so its signal was strongest.  There was no other reason I would have ever watched that many episodes of The Love Boat.  More often than not, during an hour-long show like Trek, the signal would go in and out, reducing chunks of the episodes to snowy static.

Thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy, then, for James Blish.

Blish was already a noted science fiction author when he took on the task of novelizing episodes from the original series.  His Cities in Flight series, the Pantropy stories and many others had already placed him among the best serious SF writers of the Fifties and Sixties.  He even, according to Wikipedia, coined the term “gas giant.”

I’m not sure if Blish felt a special affinity for Trek, or if adapting the show was just a job.  But for a fans stuck is pre-internet isolation, these books were crucial.  There was no such thing as “home video” in any form; the best one could do (and I did) was make audiotapes of the episodes by holding a tape recorder up to the TV speaker.  For a lot of us, the Blish books were the only way to experience the episodes without being at the mercy of TV station programmers, our parents’ whims (“That show’s just weird!”) and the weather.

The first volume, originally published in 1967, presented seven episodes from the first season.  Although two of them got retitled (“Charlie X” was called “Charlie’s Law,” and “The Man Trap” retitled “The Unreal McCoy”), Blish did not do a hack job.  He brought his full writing skill to bear, translating the scripts into genuine prose and turning out short stories that, while not “original” in the true sense, nevertheless worked as literature. 

What writer wouldn’t envy this as an opening line:

When the Romulan outbreak began, Capt. James Kirk was in the chapel of the starship Enterprise, waiting to perform a wedding. (“Balance of Terror”)

Or,

Nobody, it was clear, was going to miss the planet when it did break up. (“The Naked Time”)

Even if you know nothing of Trek, these are grabbers.

In 1970 Blish also wrote the first original Trek novel, Spock Must Die!  It’s an odd read now, with the characters stiffly thrust into a hard-SF plot.  But it was the first genuinely new Trek adventure outside fan fiction.  It also gave me my first hints about how professional publishing works: the book’s editor, clearly no fan, changed McCoy’s nickname from “Bones” to “Doc” throughout, something Blish apologized for in an author’s note.

As the adaptations progressed, Blish became more faithful to the actual scripts.  I don’t know if this was a function of his health issues (he died of lung cancer in 1975 aged 54), or simply an attempt to give the readers what they really wanted: Star Trek at their fingertips.  Either way, it was my introduction to the details of Trek, and through Trek, to science fiction as a whole.  It allowed a nerdy teenage redneck in the swamps of west Tennessee to feel connected to something bigger than himself.  And without that connection, without the belief that there were more people like me out there, I wouldn’t have become the kind of writer I am.  So thanks again, Mr. Blish, for bringing that final frontier a bit closer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation

 

Accompanying illustration 1: a photo of my original copy of the first Blish Trek, which I still have. Illustration 2: Bledsoe-The Next Generation

Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (home of Tina Turner). His novels include The Sword-Edged Blonde and Blood Groove.

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