Friday, September 2, 2011

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun

A little more than a year ago, I happened upon a Web site that specialized in providing all the books in a given series. As I was poking around that site, I discovered a series of anthologies from the mid-70s published by Del Rey and purporting to be a collection of the best short fiction by important foundational writers from the golden age of science fiction. I have already written about a number of these books, the subjects of which are indicative of the kinds of names the editors were striving to collect: C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, and L. Sprague de Camp for example. But as I read through the list of titles, one name jumped out at me.

Raymond Z. Gallun. Z for Zinke.

I had never heard of this writer, not in any collection I have ever read—The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, the first three Great Science Fiction Stories, not in a lot of anthologies that purported to collect the very best science fiction of that era. Granted, in 1939, my parents weren't even born yet, but I still consider myself to be somewhat well-read for that period and getting better as my quest to find the best of that era goes on. I asked a few people about the name and the people I most trust on such matters had no idea who he was, except for my one friend who actually had the Del Rey collection, The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun. Nonetheless, I added it to the list of books I periodically search for and recently found it.

I was further perplexed by the author of the introduction of the collection, one J. J. Pierce, another name I had no knowledge of. The other volumes I had read from the series so far had other "big names" writing the introductions, and here was a volume about a man I had never heard of with commentary from another stranger. With a mix of curiosity and trepidation, I began reading.

If you're one of those folks who likes to skip to the last page of a novel, let me give you a spoiler here—Raymond Z. Gallun's writing has not held up well over the years.

The collected work show some real thoughtfulness: the ideas that drive the stories are insightful and provocative--a human effect story depicting the growing divide between those who can and do travel in space and those that choose to remain on Earth in "Prodigal's Aura"; a serious study of the emotional effect of tremendous human longevity in "The Restless Tide"; another serious evaluation of the effect of colonizing other planets on the colonists in "Return of a Legend." There are also some page-turners about interacting with alien races and other space opera yarns. But all of the stories have one serious weakness: they are not written very well. They have very little style and what style they do have is not very good.

When I finished the book, I began doing some research on Gallun and discovered he was fairly prolific, with over 120 short stories published between 1929 and 1942. So clearly he must have been doing something right to make that many sales; that is, I'd like to think if the issues of a magazine didn't sell well, the editors would notice and not include him so often. But I also discovered that Gallun's day job was as a technical writer. And with that discovery, the veil of dissatisfaction was…not necessarily lifted but its existence was explained.

You see, I'm a paid writer too, also of the technical sort. When I put pen to paper—metaphorically now with the use of digital processing and media—to earn a salary, I am writing requirements and usage documentation for software. There is no place for stylishness in enterprise-class software documentation: someone has paid a lot of money to install the software as quickly as possible in order to begin to use it so that it can begin paying for itself. An ordered set of instructions for the installation of software doesn't have a lot of space in it for flair anyway, nor does an unordered list of viable operating systems for the software. And when I do find myself working on content that resembles prose instead of lists, I still have to be careful of language, style, and word choice in order to both make the content easily understandable and usable and to not give our translators fits. So when I sit down to write things for pleasure, whether it be this blog or the fiction that sits in a quiet corner waiting for my return to it, I'm well aware of that technical voice and constantly fighting against it, lest my prose come out…well, like Gallun's. I spend at least seven hours a workday trying to sound nothing like a human in my writing, and it's difficult to get out of that mode when I do any other kind of writing. Gallun didn't often succeed in escaping that straightforward style of writing in the stories collected in this book, and as a result, the stories are difficult and sometimes tedious to get through, masking the inventiveness behind what drives a lot of them.

I have also said it quite a few times on this blog: I love the masters of style. Current writers like Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson make me giddy with their inventive prose workings. At its base, I think this love comes from a joy in the English language, its sound and its meaning, the twists of which can carry the reader far away from the mundane world far more quickly than an intricately plotted narrative (though to be sure, I appreciate those as well). Unfortunately, Gallun resides at the other end of the spectrum—straightforward writing with not very dense plots. Neither the language nor the events of the stories give any special twists. And so it takes a reader who goes deeper than the surface to see that the ideas are really quite powerful, especially given the time period in which he was writing. This insight into Gallun's writing also offered up an insight into that golden age, that may well be true today as well—we remember the very good writers but there are a great many passable writers who advance their craft and the genre as well. The stereotype of the golden age is the pulp hack, with bug-eyed aliens and torn bodices on beautiful girls. What reading this series, and other series along the same lines, has taught me is that the stereotype simply wasn't true for the best writing of that time. And in the case of Gallun, not very true of some of the passable writing of the time, either. As I should have expected, the stereotype hides the truth.

The article about Gallun in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction concludes with the following epithet: "The best of the pre-1939 sf writers who failed to remain well-known." That's a tough sentence to parse and pretty difficult to write as well. As the breadth of the genre of speculative fiction grows larger, the depth available to readers, especially of the earliest parts of it, must grow more and more shallow. I really appreciate this book, shining a light as it does on a writer just beneath that top tier, reminding me that there were impressive depths to the genre pretty much at every point in its history; it's just that those depths had been increasingly difficult to find. Perhaps with the rise of the electronic media, some of the stories can be dredged out to see the light of day again.

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