Thursday, April 19, 2012

Unreal Biographies

When you are a fictional character (in the real sense, not the metafictional sense), there are two ways you can tell you've crossed the boundary between the printed page and our world -- you either get mail (as Santa Claus did in Miracle on 34th Street), or someone writes your biography. The greatest example of this is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, who not only receives mail regularly at his 221B Baker Street address in London, but has had a slew of biographies (including the best shown below) as well as case studies and monographs. Additionally, several years ago, I was perusing the biographical section at the end of a standard dictionary and came across the entry: "Sherlock Holmes -- English consulting detective." The lexicographer either omitted the word "fictional" or was just admitting the obvious.

Two of Agatha Christie's characters have, through sheer force of personality, made the leap from fiction to biography. They are, of course, Dame Agatha's greatest creations: M. Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian detective with the magnificent moustaches and the egg-shaped head, and Miss Jane Marple, the penurious spinster who knows that the great crime-ridden world is nothing more than a giant version of her little village of St Mary Mead. Truth be told, however, the Belgian sleuth was the lesser child in Dame Agatha's eyes, for she came to resent all the little eccentricities with which she imbued him, and took him to a mostly ignoble death in Curtain; Miss Marple, on the other hand, finished her last case (Sleeping Murder) with dignity. Personally, I think it is because, while Agatha Christie grew away from Poirot, she grew into Miss Marple.

Another British character deemed more real than most people is James Bond, Agent 007 of the British Secret Service, whose characteristics and early exploits were based on the wartime espionage adventures of creator Ian Fleming. Not only is the once secret dossier of this venerable civil servant now open to public inspection through any number of books, it is possible to take walking tours of "James Bond's London."

On this side of the Pond, we have our own share of real imaginary people. Chief among these must be Ellery Queen. When I was a kid, Ellery Queen confused the heck out of me. Was he a writer? Was he a detective? Was he the editor of his own magazine? Was he even a real person? The answer to all four questions is yes...and no. Ellery Queen, I discovered, was actually two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who created the detective in 1928 for a mystery novel contest, then submitted the story under the name of the character. So, we have Ellery the character, Ellery the writer (who sometimes write about himself, sometimes others), Ellery the anthologist who creates glittering collections, Ellery the scholar who is the greatest living expert on mystery fiction, and Ellery the editor of his own mystery magazine. No actual biography for Ellery, but boy did he get the bags full.

Nero Wolfe, America's greatest detective, has lived out his life in books, with the exception of a mundane film and two unfortunately short-lived television series. It is, then, quite a feat that he has achieved such a high level of reality to his his "Wolfe pack." We've talked a bit about Wolfe previously, so rather than travel down that street again, I only advise you to read his bio.

Contrasted with Wolfe, our next duo of American sleuths have led healthy lives outside the world of print. Perry Mason and Philip Marlowe are actually more known these days through appearances in film and television; some people may even be surprised that they were born in books (when attending a screening of the Sherlock Holmes film, I was amused to hear a girl tell her boyfriend to write down Conan Doyle's name so they could see if the library had any books available). For millions of people, Perry Mason looks just like Raymond Burr, while Philip Marlowe sometimes looks like Humphrey Bogart (or Sam Spade), sometimes like Robert Mitchum. If you read the biography of Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, you're really reading Mason's bio; Marlowe has his own biography, and when in Los Angeles, that city of mean streets where a man must walk while not becoming mean himself, be sure to take the Philip Marlowe bus tour.

And for a little bit of fun, as well as some great information on Erle Stanley Gardner as a fictional character (yes, the creator becomes the created), it's well worth your time to track down a copy of Susan Kandel's I Dreamed I Married Perry mason.

All the characters who've leapt from fiction to fact are from the mystery genre, and I feel that is no mere coincidence. Only in the mystery world do we have characters coming back again and again, sharing their lives with us, becoming a bit more real with each reading. Those characters outside mysteries who have attained a measure of reality (Harry Potter leaps to mind) are the exception rather than the rule, and in the case of Harry Potter, I would suggest that the lad has more in common with the mystery realm than with any other genre, despite all the potions, broomsticks and bogies. There are lots of reference books about mystery writers and their creations, but I have two go-to books when I want to dig deep, Detectionary andThe Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, both by Otto Penzler; they are a bit dated when it comes to the latest crop of sleuths, such as Harry Bosch, Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski, but I still can't recommend any better.

For a bit of fun and sinful indulgence, however, track down two books "perpetrated" by Dilys Wynn, noted NYC bookseller who founded the first all-mystery bookstore, Murder Ink. Both books show below are reference books, in a sense, but they are also "companionable" know, cozy, like a good English country house murder.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In Remembrance of the Robots' God

Isaac Asimov died twenty years ago this month, 6 April 1992.

Even now, it's difficult to write those words, to consider a world without Isaac Asimov's wit and wisdom, his soaring imagination, his galactic vision, his confidence in a future that had the possibility of being much better than the past. I never met Asimov, never spoke with him, never corresponded with him, and yet I felt closer to him than many people I have known my whole life. I think this is as much a testament to the vigor of his writing as to the effect of the written word itself on a reader's life.

Looking back, I can't recall exactly when I encountered Isaac Asimov's writing. Certainly it was prior to the appearance of  his story The Man Who Made the 21st Century in the October 1965 issue of Boy's Life, the Scouting magazine, for I recall being very excited about the story. Even now, I remember vividly the story of the Renaissance Man (though I would not have used the term at the time) whose inventions created the kind of future in which we needed to believe in 1965. It was the sort of future in which I needed to, and did, believe -- the real future has been most disappointing. But at that point, I still had hope. And in that era, when the Boy Scouts was still a force for good and not a political football for cynical activism, it seemed quite possible that American exceptionalism (which was not a dirty word then) could give rise to another Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla. I could not see then, as I do now, that Asimov modeled his protean genius on himself, but if I had I still would have believed in the future.

Early on, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, the venerable mail order service that in 1953 began supplying hardcover science fiction books to geeks and nuclear scientists nationwide, and the first book I bought (for the introductory offer you glued a dime to the advertisement and mailed it to them) was the one-volume edition of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, which was comprised of Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. Though the short stories, which originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, were first published in hardcover in 1951 by Gnome Press, many millions of people initially encountered Hari Seldon and psychohistory in the SFBC's omnibus edition. Since that time, of course, the series has progressed beyond the trilogy with Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, and regressed through the prequels Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation; actually, Asimov eventually tied all his major fiction to the foundation theme, creating a grand unified literary universe.

It was through The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) that I encountered Isaac Asimov on a monthly basis, for he started writing a regular science essay in 1958, and F&SF was one of the first, if not the very first, magazine I asked my mother to buy me instead of a comic when we went to the Thrifty Drug Store...she balked a bit, because the comics were only a dime while the digest magazine was 40 cents, but she gave in...when you're smiling, and quiet, and polite, and looking at her with those liquid hazel eyes, what can a mother do but forget about the spilled milk and argument with your brother (it really was his fault) and give in and buy the magazine? I learned more about science from those monthly installments of wisdom than from all the classes I ever took, and they were certainly more inspirational. In fact, Asimov was usually so cutting edge on his information that I regularly found myself in disagreement with my science teachers...they never won the arguments, of course, and I think it annoyed them even more because they could never give me less than an "A." Thanks, Dr Asimov.

Probably another early encounter with Isaac Asimov occurred when I stumbled onto the David (Lucky) Starr series of books, though at first I did not realize I was reading something from the typewriter of Isaac Asimov since they were published under the name Paul French. The reason for the pen name was because the books were aimed at a younger audience, the sort of youths who watched Space Patrol after school, and Asimov wanted to keep the books separate from his other writings. Well, you know how it is with pen names -- first they hide the author, then they herald the author decades later. When David Starr, Space Ranger appeared in 1952 it was A SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURE BY PAUL FRENCH; by 2001, when the SFBC brought out an omnibus volume with all five novels it was ISAAC ASIMOV WRITING AS PAUL FRENCH. Of the five novels, my favorite is Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, perhaps because it depicts how Venus should be. In 1966, I recall arguing for an oceanic Venus...before the Russians ruined everything by landing a probe, which was crushed, then melted. Darn Ruskies! Personally, I think Asimov had it right, but someone forgot to tell the solar system.

The Bible, Shakespeare, the mysteries of Heaven and Earth -- I knew long before the rest of the world that Isaac Asimov knew more than anyone else, but even I did not know that he knew everything. I suspected he did, but I did not know. The range of books published under his name was truly astounding, and though other writers may match quantity (about 500 books) I don't think we will ever see again a writer with the ability to communicate to the ordinary reader such a dizzying range of subjects. Unlike other writers who get shoved into a profitable niche, it was possible for a person to read a large number of his books and never know anything about robots, galactic empires, mysteries, science, dirty old men, literature or history...he wrote more than enough in every field to be considered an expert in any field.

Isaac Asimov perfected the science fiction mystery, melding two genres supposedly unmixable in a series of stories beginning in 1954, collected in Asimov's Mysteries (1968), and in two novels. He was, however, quite a force in the mystery genre itself, publishing two collections about the boy detective Larry, a collection about the problem solver Griswold, and a half-dozen collections about the Black Widowers, members of a private men's club who tried to solve problems, and watched in awe as their waiter Henry actually did. Being primarily a science fiction guy then, I was wary of Asimov's foray into what I considered alien territory (I should have known better, being a fan of Frederic Brown and Anthony Boucher, both of whom are jealously claimed by both genres), but as I read the stories appearing (mostly) in issues of EQMM, I was won over. Asimov also wrote an academic murder mystery (The Death Dealers), and an hilarious mystery, Murder at the ABA, in which fictional author/detective Darius Just is involved in a murder mystery and harried by writer Isaac Asimov, there gathering information on a murder mystery he is writing -- meta-fiction at its best.

If there is one subject with which the name Isaac Asimov is synonymous, it is the robot. His robots began marching though the world of SF in 1940, and along the way gathered a positronic brain, the three laws that govern their metallic lives, and eventually something of a soul. The three laws of robotics have become so ingrained in our culture that even non-SF fans will quote them in the now-real world of robotics: 1) a robot must not injure a human or allow one to come to harm, 2) a robot must obey orders except when it will harm a human being, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence except where it conflicts with the first and second laws. The laws are so basic they have not changed at all since being presented in the 1942 story Runaround. How many laws written by our own politicians match their simplicity and immutability? No wonder the robots worship Asimov.

One of the reasons I felt I knew Asimov better than I did other writers (you have to remember the computers, no cable, no Internet, no Wikipedia) is that his short story collections did not just present story after story without commentary. No, his stories were often accompanied by forewords and/or afterwords about the origin of the stories, his memories or insights into writing, sometimes verging on being intensely autobiographical in revealing ways. It was on these insights that I heavily relied when I wrote a biography of Asimov for an 11th grade English teacher who claimed she'd never heard of him -- I always suspected some level of mendacity, for she was otherwise an intelligent person; besides, after reading my paper (written in neat teeny-tiny penmanship on long legal paper) she knew more about Asimov than she probably ever wanted to know. You're quite welcome, Mrs. Welles.

One event made 1977 a memorable year, and, no, it was not the start of Apple Computer, the debut of Star Wars or the first performance of The Clash; not even the discovery of rings around Uranus (who knew?). No, it was the appearance of the first issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

I was stationed in Germany at the time, but the Stars & Stripes Bookstore was almost like a second home to me. In those pre-computer days (well, I played Pong! once) it was my way of staying current with the science fiction scene, that and the SFBC. The bookstore provided books and periodicals only slightly delayed after American publication. The magazine was brought to us by the same company that published Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but whereas Hitch lent only the brand of his name for a price, Asimov brought his talent and energy as Editorial Director; though he worked with four editors from 1977 - 1992, the magazine always remained his, and, in a very real way, it still does.

When I was first told of Asimov's death by a friend who knew of my interest and affection, I did not believe him. He might as well have told me the sun decided not to rise that day...but when I learned the truth of his claim the day seemed as day as if the sun truly had not risen. The world seemed a much more dismal place, and any hope for the future gave way to an expectation of a spreading dystopia (which has come to pass). That day, on my way home from work, I had to stop for gas at the station on El Cajon Blvd and I-805, and when I went to the attendant's office to pay I noticed he was reading The Robots of Dawn, Asimov's sequel to the science fiction mysteries The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, and I told him Isaac Asimov was dead. It was a cruel thing to do, and I immediately regretted the brutality, but at that moment I needed someone, even a stranger, to share my misery.

Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.          -- Isaac Asimov