This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.
I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.
After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.
I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.
Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.
A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.
Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.
Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.
The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.
You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.
Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?
The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.
I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.
We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.
And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.
As I’ve written earlier, after the success of the Faster Than Light pilot, we did not receive a green light to proceed with a series. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Director of Radio Programming at the time, Adrian Mills, did not reject the show outright. The following summer James Roy, now Acting Director of Radio Drama, approached me about doing another pilot for a summer run of the show. Presented in a half hour format, it would be Faster Than Light “light”. Unfortunately, James had no budget for it.
No problem. We took a radio play directed by Bill Lane from the archives and built a show around it. I wrote a frame for the show about auditioning for a new host. Rob’s main competition was a robot called Huey (played by Julian Ford) whose main claim to fame was starring as a robot in the classic science fiction movie Silent Running with Bruce Dern. Huey didn’t get the job. Linda Spence also acted in this pilot as a fictional Associate Producer. The concept for Faster Than Light was gradually crystallizing in my mind: it would be a fictional show about making a science fiction radio show. A show within a show. Very meta.
The summer series didn’t pan out, though. James was willing to proceed, but with no funding and very little time to write and produce ten episodes, I didn’t think I could do the show justice. Seeing as it appeared we’d have an opportunity to try again later with proper funding and adequate time, I opted to wait.
That fall we did get funding to do another pilot. For this attempt, I brought in Fergus Heywood to co-produce. Fergus had been highly recommended to me by Greg Sinclair. He enthusiastically agreed to help out. We were assigned Alison Moss as Senior Producer, who I always loved working with. I would eventually work with her on the summer replacement series Next with Nora Young. So it was a good team.
Chris Boyce, Head of the Program Development Committee, organized a facilitated session to help us further define the show. Fergus, Alison, Rob Sawyer, Chris Boyce and I all sat down to figure it out. Richard Handler, an experienced Arts producer, was also involved. This third pilot was a serious effort, but the whole spirit was completely different than the first pilot. The show would be half hour instead of an hour. It would include one full cast radio play instead of two, and it would not include a continuation of Captain’s Away, although I had written several episodes.
Chris had us come up with a mandate:
“To fire the imaginations of Canadians by presenting thought provoking encounters with masters of science fiction and fantasy along with engaging dramatizations of their work.”
When we were finally ready, I hired Wayne Richards to write and record original theme music for the opening of the show. We would use an original composition from Fergus Heywood for the closing. Having decided to make the theme of this pilot “The Other,” we secured the services of Cathi Bond, an experienced freelancer, to produce a short documentary on “the other” in science fiction films throughout history.
I wrote a high production frame for the episode that consisted of three parts. In the opening, a mad scientist creates a host for the show in an homage to Frankenstein, a classic “other” in science fiction. The mad scientist was played by Tony Daniels, who did a brilliant German accent as Dr. Frankenstein. Once the host has been created, he takes over and introduces the show. After the first part of the show, a second interlude or frame features the mad scientist conducting an experiment in which he accidentally transforms himself into a fly (an obvious homage to The Fly). Rob the host returns to usher us into the next part of the show, an original adaptation of Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, adapted and directed by Barry Morgan. The end credits featured Rob as the host along with the mad scientist. Not realizing that the fly trapped in the studio with him is the mad scientist, Rob swats him.
I was attempting to seamlessly mix representational radio with presentational radio. The drama and the high production intro, middle and extro were all representational. You listened to those the way you would watch a movie or television show. They weren’t talking directly to the audience. They were meant to be entertaining as opposed to informative. Whereas the bits with Rob talking directly to the audience, and Cathi Bond presenting her short documentary, were presentational. The trick was to guide the audience from one style of radio to another without confusing them.
Ultimately the fate of the show would be determined by the Program Development Committee, a group of several experienced broadcasters assembled by Chris Boyce. I remember one of the members of this group listening to the opening of the show after I had finished mixing it. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was funny and that the sound effects and mix had achieved what I’d set out to do. This person listened to it, gave me no feedback whatsoever, and left the studio. My impression was that he didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. This did not bode well.
We finished the pilot and submitted it to the Program Development Committee. A representative of the committee phoned me sometime afterward to tell me the bad news. They weren’t going to pick up the show as it stood. They just didn’t think it worked. More work was required.
I didn’t entirely disagree. I didn’t think it had worked as well as the original pilot. The original pilot had had room to breathe. It possessed a certain charm. We hadn’t overthought it. The elements stood on their own. Rob brought a passion and an authenticity to it. The second pilot had itself been a Frankenstein monster. I liked the frame we had created for it. But I had been forced to edit the heck out of the radio play that I’d borrowed from the archives to make it fit. Even the audio quality of the radio play hadn’t been up to snuff; it had originally been recorded on tape and sounded a few tape generations old. The third pilot had more going for it. I liked the frame. I liked the opening and closing music. I liked Barry Morgan’s Richard Matheson adaptation. I liked Cathi’s piece. But somehow it didn’t all gell the same as the original.
Nevertheless, the committee still hadn’t given us a definitive “no.” They offered us a chance to make yet a fourth pilot. By now people in the drama department were calling me Wing Commander Joe, I had so many pilots under me.
So, with a thread of hope still dangling before us, Fergus, Rob, Alison and I got together to talk about it. Rob made the point that maybe the show needed to be more serious, that our problem was trying to mix humour with seriousness. Thinking of shows like MASH and Life is Beautiful, I didn’t think that was the issue, though it could well have confused the Development Committee. Rob also objected to the CBC’s obvious efforts to make the show “stealth” science fiction. They didn’t want the show to be overtly about science fiction and fantasy. They wanted it to be something else that happened to include science fiction and fantasy. I agreed with Rob on this point. There seemed to be a slight bias against science fiction and fantasy. And not only that: against radio plays, too. Against storytelling. Against the representational. (This would be made abundantly clear when the entire radio drama department was shut down a few short years later, ostensibly as a response to financial pressures.)
Which was too bad. Because by now I had refined the concept even further. I was thinking that the host should be a sonic sorcerer, with the power to do anything, be anywhere. This concept, coupled with effective, liberal use of sound effects, would have several virtues. It would allow us to harness the enormous imaginative potential of radio. If the host wanted to be on the surface of Mars, he could be there in the blink of an eye—faster than light, if you will. If he wanted to lasso a comet by the tail, he could. He could pilot a spaceship, visit Heaven or Hell, single-handedly battle an army of knights… or simply conduct an interview. It solved the conceptual problem of how to veer from the fantastic portions of the show’s “frame” to the magazine elements of the show:
FEMALE VOICE: (TREATED) Incoming vessel. You have three seconds to identify yourself before we open fire.
HOST: (TWO SECOND BEAT) (TREATED) I’m Robert J. Sawyer, commanding Faster Than Light on CBC Radio. Be advised that if you open fire, we will respond.
FEMALE VOICE: Acknowledged, Faster Than Light. What, may I ask, will you respond with?
ROB: How about an interview with Canadian Independent author Maaja Wentz?
You see how it would work? Playful and imaginative. Veering seamlessly from fantasy to reality. It would itself be science fiction and fantasy while presenting the same to our listeners.
Alas, it never happened. The committee never did say no outright, but the truth is, Faster Than Light as we conceived of it never stood much of a chance. What we wanted to do was too much at odds with what the powers that be at the time were willing to let us do. Greg Sinclair was head of the drama department at the time (but did not represent the Program Development Committee… I felt he was on my side). We discussed the project and mutually decided to pull the plug. To make it work for the CBC, we were going to have to turn it into a show that none of us believed in or wanted to do. Greg informed Rob Sawyer.
We never got the green light that I had dreamed about for so long.
Still, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I’m proud of all three pilots. Rob and I became friends. I thank him for his generosity and time in trying to make it work. Later, he asked me to read and comment on the third draft of his novel Rollback (about a man and a woman in their eighties who agree to undergo a procedure to make them younger. It only works on the man. Of course, this has huge implications on their relationship. It’s a great read.) Rob made the protagonist a CBC Recording Engineer/Producer, which is what I aspired to be. He also featured me as a character in the novel, on page ninety-nine.
I went back to my normal life working on other people’s radio shows. That year CBC Radio launched a show called WireTap. I could barely make myself listen to it, out of jealousy, I suppose. Finally listening to an episode one day, I found myself impressed. I wrote the producers of Wiretap and told them how much I liked the episode, which had included some scby Roience fiction. I used my cbc.ca email address so that they would know that it came from a colleague. Nobody from the show ever responded.
Had I managed to get Faster Than Light on the air, I would have personally responded to every single email the show received.
One day Damiano Pietropaulo, the Director of Radio Drama, came to me with a proposal. He was putting together a series called “Where is Here? The Drama of Immigration” for Monday Playbill. He had in his hands an unpublished memoir written by a former immigration officer by the name of Arthur J. Vaughan. Damiano wanted me to adapt Arthur’s memoir into a kind of a drama and hire Gordon Pinsent to play the part of Arthur.
I was happy to be given the opportunity and immediately set to work adapting the memoir, but I just could not lift it off the page. Before long I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t going to work, Gordon Pinsent or no. The best thing, I figured, would be to just get Arthur himself to tell all the stories he’d written about.
The only problem was that all the stories in question took place just after the Second World War. I didn’t even know if Arthur was still with us. He would have to have been in his eighties. But I picked up the phone and discovered that not only was Arthur still with us, he was sharp as a tack and enthusiastic about telling his story.
With Damiano’s blessing, I booked a studio for Arthur in Halifax and another studio for myself in Toronto and Arthur and I spoke for about an hour. At this time Arthur was eighty-five years old and only afterward did I realized just how inconsiderate I had been. Once we wrapped up our conversation and said goodbye, Arthur didn’t realize that the lines and mics were still open, and I heard him say to the technician in Halifax: “I like to talk, but by the jeez! That was long,” and I realized what an idiot I had been.
I had many opportunities to correspond with Arthur before and after the interview, and speak with him on the phone, and I came to really like him. Such a gentleman, warm and smart, all of which I believe is evident on the show that resulted from our conversation. Sadly, shortly after the initial broadcast, Arthur became ill. I phoned him up and asked him how he was doing, and he replied, “Miserable.” It turned out he had leukemia, and I do not believe that Arthur wanted to go gently into that good night. Later, his daughter informed me that when he packed his bags to go into the hospital, among the few possessions that he took with him was a CD copy of the show we’d made.
Being able to tell his story obviously meant a lot to Arthur, and it means a great deal to me to have been able to make it happen for him in the last year of his life.
Unbeknownst to me, Damiano arranged to publish the entire Where Is Here series with J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, under their Scirocco Press imprint which specializes in drama. My interview with Arthur appeared in Where Is Here: The Drama of Immigration (Vol. 2). Years later, a woman by the name of Diana Lobb contacted me for the rights, looking to produce One Officer’s Experiences for the 2016-2017 season of the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre. I was stunned and delighted to learn that my work with Arthur had been published and made available to theatres for production. After establishing that I owned the underlying literary rights, I was only too happy to grant Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre the rights for nine performance dates.
“…others write about the future…van Vogt writes from the future…”
Unknown, Mid-Twentieth century
Ah, it’s the missed opportunities that bug me most. Here’s another one.
I pitched the following to my friend and colleague Bill Lane, master dramatist, who joined forces with me to pitch it to the radio drama department. In this age of podcasting, I believe it remains a solid, valid pitch:
It’s hard to make a living writing fiction in this country. It’s even harder to do it writing science fiction. Manitoba native Alfred Etan van Vogt did so and became one of the most respected SF writers of his day, on a par with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. His work remains enormously popular in the U.K., France, Brazil and Sweden, and yet few Canadians have ever heard of him. We are lousy at celebrating our own.
And this is a Canadian whose work should be celebrated. His work profoundly influenced the entire field of speculative fiction. He once successfully sued the makers of the movie Alien for $50,000 US for ripping off his work. And without Van Vogt and his tales of the Space Beagle, there would have been no Star Trek.
With typical Canadian modesty, he once described himself as “a bright but simple fellow from Canada.” Others hold him in higher esteem. He possesses, according to Charles Platt: “…a compelling presence, an intensity, a slightly mad gleam in his eye, and when he writes he comes up with eerie powerful journeys into symbolic depths of the psyche. When you open one of his novel you open the subconscious. He writes dreams.”
van Vogt… was not hard and cold and unemotional, in the manner of Clement, Asimov and Heinlein. He could balance his cubic light years and the paraphernalia of super science with moments of tenderness and pure loony joy.
…van Vogt had…nothing less than the ability to deliver (a) total alienness within (b) a hugely panoramic background that (c) seemingly lacked reason and yet came together to (d) end by making total if terrifying sense.
Let’s wield what influence we possess to increase the Canadian public’s awareness of one of our own, a giant in his field, whose work deserves to be celebrated.
After many years of creating well regarded but relatively unlucrative short fiction, van Vogt turned his attention to the full-length novel. His first, and by some accounts his most famous, was Slan. Written while Vogt was living in Ottawa, Slan recounts the maturation of a mutant with telepathic powers and enhanced intelligence in a world hostile to his kind.
(It) was a paralleling of Ernest Thomson Seton‘s The Biography of a Grizzly: the pattern of Grizzly was: his mother is killed at the beginning, and the cub is on his own. He doesn’t find an old lady to help him, but he manages to find a place where he can hide for his first year or so. By then he is the equivalent of Jommy at nine — stronger than all the lesser animals of the forest; but he’d better stay away from full-grown black bears, etc. Finally, he comes to what Seton called in his heading: “The Days of His Strength.” He is a full-grown grizzly bear, king of the forest and mountains. For the most part I didn’t need parallels like that, but that one struck me as being interesting, and I used it automatically.
A.E. Van Vogt on his work Slan
Although a fun story with plenty of action, Slan is permeated with themes of fear, discrimination and alienation. Eminently suitable for adaptation to radio, the opportunities for creative, exciting sound design abound.