Nov 29, 2015

Writing as a Disease

1935 - cover art by Margaret Brundage
And writing as medicine. In both cases, writing can be something very powerful.

Picture Isaac Asimov growing up in New York City and becoming fascinated by the colorful covers of the pulp science fiction magazines that were sold in his parent's store. Asimov read them all. In a parallel universe, near another ocean, Jack Vance grew up in the country, but he was also a voracious reader. He'd wait expectantly for the next edition of Weird Tales to appear in his family's mailbox. Both boys had been infected by the reading disease which metastasized and spread...they both began writing their own stories at a young age.

Asimov and Vance struggled for decades to accommodate themselves to their writing disease and they both finally succeeded, reaching points in their careers where they could chuck their "day job" and support their families by writing. Millions of their readers and fans are still grateful for their prodigious literary output.

Howard, king of thieves. source
I'm entranced (OK, I'm obsessed) by the idea of writers who write about writers, not in the dreary mode of pontificating and sharing their advice for how to write, but rather, by inserting writers into their stories as characters. Vance inserted several memorable writers into his fiction and he seemed to have a whole lot of fun doing so, even when his fictional writers were stunted or crippled due to the effects of their own writing disease.

A musical Treesong. source
Among the diseased writers that Vance imagined, I must first mention Howard Alan Treesong. Treesong was the "preeminent criminal of the Oikumene and Beyond" in Vance's fictional universe and the 5th and final Demon Prince to be hunted down and murdered by the avenging Kirth Gersen.

Zada Memar
At a young age, Howard became infected by something and he began writing his autobiographical "Book of Dreams".

Also at a young age, Howard became a serial murderer. Vance rather dramatically displays two of Treesong's earliest victims: Zada Memar and Nimpy Cleadhoe. They are presented to readers as "marmels", their dead bodies encased in a thin, stone-like layer of impermeable stuff and posed like statues.

"The only good drummer is a dead drummer"
The Book of Dreams
For decades, Treesong has carefully guarded his personal privacy. He has exercised his authority as the "king of thieves" by using a dozen secret identities. When Gersen's persistent sleuthing finally reveals Treesong, the last of the Demon Princes is at the height of his career as a matured criminal. Treesong's goal is nothing less than to become the first Emperor of the Oikumene and rule over all the human-settled planets of the galaxy.

With such grandiose plans, we might think he'd be too busy to fret about his childhood, but Vance can't pass up the opportunity to show -in humorous detail- what happens when Treesong attends his 25th high school reunion. Poised to become the First Emperor of the human universe, Treesong returns to his home planet in order to take revenge on his old "school chums" in Gladbetook. Woe to those who long ago bullied and tormented him. As Treesong says, "...for every 'tit' there must be a 'tat'."

Never Interrupt a Writer
Treesong's Book of Dreams, lost for 25 years, is found by Gersen and used as bait to lure Treesong to his death. The book describes the colors of Treesong's soul. Vance depicts Treesong as being the living vehicle for a cadre of mysterious reincarnated "paladins". These wandering souls animate Treesong much like a humanoid puppet, endowing Howard with a dramatic and magical multiple-personality disorder. When under stress, Treesong can simultaneously speak in multiple overlapping voices, revealing the presence of the excited paladins as they fail to wait their turns to speak. In the end, the paladins abandon Treesong's body just before his death. Howard has finally been exorcised of his disease, which in a lesser man might only have led to a writing career, not mass murder.

Here are some other fictional writers from the imagination of Jack Vance....

1) Baron Bodissey was not given a speaking role by Vance. However, Bodissey Unspiek's words reach us through snippets that Vance has selected and taken from the baron's sprawling master work, Life. The good baron even gets his own Wikipedia page.

Particularly amusing is the start of Chapter 10 in The Killing Machine. Our hero, Gersen, has just reached the primitive planet Thamber. Vance leads us into Gersen's coming travails with a long quote from Baron Bodissey's six volume opus, Life, lamenting the futility of mere book learning. It ends with...

cover art by David Russell
"Essentially the tastes and preferences of the intellectual elite, derived from learning, are false, doctrinaire, artificial, shrill, shallow, uncertain, eclectic, jejune and insincere."

...which is followed closely by several replies from reviewers of Baron Bodissey's Life...

"Ponderously the great machine ingests its bales of lore; grinding, groaning, shuddering, it brings forth its product: small puffs of acrid vari-colored vapor."

"Six volumes of rhodomotade and piffle."

"Egregious, ranting, boorish, unacceptable."

2) Navarth, the mad poet, also got a Wikipedia page for his speaking role in The Palace of Love. Having long ago crossed paths with Demon Prince Viole Falushe, and having come to despise him, Navarth functions as a kind of humorous side-kick and partner in crime fighting with Kirth Gersen.

Gersen: I understand that in your youth you contrived a few outrages of your own.

" 'In my youth' ?" Sputtered Navarth. "I have contrived outrages all my life!"

Navarth and his ward, Zan Zu, the mysterious girl from Eridu, accompany Gersen to Falushe's Palace of Love. There, Gersen finds a notebook kept by Viole Falushe that explores how he might succeed in making Jheral Tinzy -or one of her clones- fall in love with him. As one of the clones says, "A great deal of wasted effort."

The girl I met in Eridu
Was kind beyond belief;
The hours that I spent with her
Were hours far too brief.

I told of force and time and space,
I told of hence and yonder;
I asked if she would come with me
To know my worlds of wonder.

"You are you and I am I,
And best that you return.
And I will stay in Eridu
With all this yet to learn." -Navarth

Sessily Veder
3) I must also draw attention to Floreste's letter, written at the behest of Glawen in the Cadwal Chronicles. After having left Glawen to die as a prisoner of the perverse Ordene Zaa at Pogan's Point and then awaiting his own execution, Floreste makes a lame attempt to atone for his evil by composing a long, meandering letter that discloses where the even more perverse Smonny is holding Glawen's father as her prisoner. The letter is first read out loud in its entirety and then summed up by the crusty Bodwyn Wook: "If nothing else, he knew how to contrive exquisite excuses for himself".

stray treads
In his letter, Floreste made an effort to "justify" his crimes by noting that his only goal was to fund a new center for the performing arts at Araminta Station. Bodwyn Wook is not moved: "...we can't allow every vagabond dog-barber who calls himself an 'artist' to commit vile crimes while pursuing his muse".

4) Wayness Tamm, the future wife of Glawen, goes off to Earth for a visit with her uncle Pirie Tamm, the last secretary of the ancient Naturalist Society. We are told that Pirie spends his time doing research for a monograph he is writing. Pirie explains to Wayness:

"I dwell in a swivel chair. I sit in one direction to work on my monograph: I am jerked to attention by a sudden recollection, swing about in the chair to plunge into Society business."

In the Ekcolir Reality: 1959
Wayness learns that Pirie Tamm is presiding over the slow death of the Naturalist Society and he has few friends. One acquaintance of Pirie is the professional tomb robber Adrian Moncurio who suggests a strategy to revive the Naturalist Society:

"...organize a grand beauty pageant, with pretty girls recruited from as many worlds as possible. They would be named 'Miss Naturalist-Earth', 'Miss Naturalist-Alcyone, 'Miss Naturalist-Lirwan' and so forth."

When Pirie Tamm balks at Moncurio's scheme, Adrian presses his point, "Never forget: a beautiful girl is no less a part of nature than a bottle-nosed blind worm from the caves of Procyon IX."

5) Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII, author of Preface to Men of the Oikumene.

Vance obviously spent time thinking about an imaginary future where humans would spread outward from Earth into the vastness of the galaxy. His fictional universe was a stage where he could let his imagination play with human reactions to new environments. Vaenz asks: "Does infinity, as an object of experience instead of a mathematical abstraction, daunt the human mind?"


"There are those who, like the author, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch."

"Beauty" Dasce
At this point in the story, Gersen has just tortured and murdered an evil henchman, visciously beaten another and been close at hand while Demon Prince Attel Malagate murdered Lugo Teehalt. Arriving back in civilization from the Beyond, Gersen is just about to meet the gay, warm-hearted Pallis Atwrode. Vance selects and provides to readers a passage about the quest for pleasure, taken from Baron Bodissey's Life...

"...every particular scarcity or compulsion or danger generates a corresponding psychic tension demanding a particular gratification."

Gersen quickly asks Pallis out for a night on the town. Almost at once she is kidnapped by "Beauty" Dasce and subjected to his vile attentions. Poor Pallis!

The Medicine Men
The Pilgrim's Progress
While writing can be a disease, it can also be medicine. Maybe like-cures-like? Once inflicted with the writing disease, is the only cure spending a lifetime writing millions of words?

Kirth Gersen is a James Bond-like character, trained for lethal competence, but after he steals 10,000,000,000 SVU, he quickly buys Cosmopolis magazine which allows Gersen to carry out his detective work while disguised as a journalist. Gersen seems to enjoy taunting both Viole Falushe and Howard Treesong in print.

In his 'vulgar exposé' of Viole Falushe (Part I: The Boy), Gersen writes: "His name was then Vogel Filschner. If the boy resembles the man, his celebrated amours can only have been achieved by duress or drugs   .....   I suppose it was not all his fault. His mother must have been a sloven. He had disgusting personal habits, such as picking his nose and examining the yield, making queer gulping noises and above all smelling."

Where Vance gracefully and repeatedly created characters who were writers, Asimov was prone to inserting both "scientists" and "sleuths" into his stories. The applied mathematician Hari Seldon and plainclothesman Baley are two famous examples.

In a sense, good science fiction stories always include exploration of a mystery and both Vance and Asimov explicitly wrote mystery genre stories. Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw were created by Asimov as part of his effort to prove that it is possible to write a good detective story in a science fiction setting.

Not to be out-done, Vance gave us Over-Inspector of the Whelm, Ryl Shermatz.

Cal, 1990
An amusing story that combined both robots and a clever perspective on 'writing as a disease' was produced by Asimov near the end of his life: Cal.

The robot Cal (number CL-123X) was built to the specifications of a wealthy writer of mystery stories who is named Mr. Northrop. In addition to being constrained by the three Laws of Robotics, Cal had an unusual bug: he wanted to be a writer like Mr. Northrop. Cal's first attempt to write a story produced only gibberish, but Mr. Northrop was intrigued by the existence of a robot who wanted to write, so he had Cal modified so as to enlarge his cognitive powers and vocabulary.

Cal's second written story reveals two serious problems. First, Cal can't spell. Second, since Cal is endowed with the Laws of Robotics, he can't write a good crime mystery. Mr. Northrop pays to have Cal modified again so that the robot can spell words correctly and he allows Cal to read some stories that were written by Northrop. Already at this point, we begin to see that poor Cal is starting to become even more unusual. He resents the fact that the robot technician who performs his upgrades calls him "a hunk of steel and titanium".

In the Ekcolir Reality.
Cal's third story is a silly "crime mystery" about an embezzling businessman. Cal writes himself into the story as the great detective 'Calumet Smithson' who solves the case by tempting the thief with a shiny quarter. Mr. Northrop finally gives up all hope that Cal can write a story about crime and punishment since such concepts conflict with the Three Laws of Robotics. Northrop decides that Cal should write satire, but Cal's mental condition continues to deteriorate. He resents the fact that Mr. Northrop is telling him what type of stories to write. Cal is given another upgrade: the robot technician performs a risky adjustment of Cal which he hopes will provide the robot with a sense of the ridiculous.

Cal next writes an Azazel story which the robot technician reads and finds amusing. Mr. Northrop is not amused, realizing that the robot will quickly learn to write stories that would be more popular than his own. You need to read Cal in order to experience the ending and fully appreciate the extent to which Asimov created a charming recursive fiction story that is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy and a crime mystery. Sadly, 2 years after the first publication of Cal, Asimov was dead.

The Writing Mystery
In Vance's novel Araminta Station, he introduces readers to the Clattuc family. Glawen Clattuc is the protagonist and we see him growing up and following in his father's footsteps, becoming a careful, competent and thoughtful policeman. Vance starkly contrasts Glawen with other members of his family, particularly Simonetta (A.K.A. 'Smonny'). Here is one description of Simonetta provided by Vance:

"She seems to be guided by an instinctive or subconscious shrewdness, rather than formal intelligence..."

Glawen is born into a mysterious world where a kind of civil war is taking place within his family and across the planet Cadwal. Vance provides Glawen with several mysteries (puzzles) to be solved.

In both the case of Vance and Asimov, through the decades each writer refined his craft and created a fictional universe that is suited to his interests and style. Asimov used Golan Treviz and Janov Pelorat to solve the mystery of the Foundation Fictional Universe (Blissenobiarella was something of a "5th wheel" that Asimov could not resist including). Vance used Glawen and Wayness to solve the mysteries of Cadwal and the Naturalist Society (as an irrepressible creator of characters, Vance included folks like Sessily Veder and Eustace Chilke as 5th wheels and spare tires).

By the ends of their careers, Vance and Asimov were masters of their craft. If, like Howard Treesong, they were infected by the writing disease as children, both Vance and Asimov were ultimately able to cure their affliction and turn it to their advantage. Science fiction fans will be eternally grateful.

Next: Asimov and how he ended Eternity.
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