“…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.
Once upon a time I tried to make a radio play version of the Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. The Powers That Be at CBC Radio at the time were in favour of the idea. The Business Rights people contacted Harlan and attempted to negotiate with him. I can’t quite recall how it came about, but I wound up calling him.
I’d been a big fan of his work ever since reading his short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which blew my mind (I actually wrote a version it for radio, since lost to time). I don’t think I even knew then that he’d written City on the Edge of Forever. Much later I discovered that he is considered by many to be, shall we say, problematic. Anyway, being a fan at the time, I was tickled at the opportunity to talk to him. We had a short conversation which focussed mostly on how much the rights to City on the Edge of Forever would cost. I informed him that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was a public broadcaster and we’d pay what we could. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough for Harlan, so the project never happened.
If you’re wondering how we could ever even have conceived such a thing, here’s my original pitch, which lays it all out. The thing is, as far as I know, it all stills hold true today. You could not produce a version of Gene Roddenberry’s City on the Edge of Forever, but you COULD produce a version of Harlan Ellison’s. If you really wanted to, and if you had enough money to purchase the rights. And maybe changed the characters’ names.
The City on the Edge of Forever Pitch
There was a time when if you were a Star Trek fan then you were a member of a relatively small club. This is no longer the case. Now, just about everyone is familiar with Star Trek – it’s a cultural phenomenon.
Arguably the best Star Trek episode ever made – in any of the ubiquitous franchise’s many incarnations – is City on the Edge of Forever. City on the Edge of Forever features the original and most beloved characters in the Star Trek pantheon: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, and so on. The story is simple and poignant: Kirk travels back in time to 1930’s New York to prevent a shipmate from altering time. There, he falls in love, but to fulfill his mission, he must allow the woman he has fallen in love with to die.
The episode spawned a famous feud between the episode’s original writer, Harlan Ellison, and Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. Citing cost overruns and other difficulties, Roddenberry and his staff (Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana, mainly) completely rewrote Ellison’s version of the episode before shooting it. The two versions are quite a bit different, yet both have demonstrable merit. Roddenberry’s went on to win a Hugo; Ellison’s won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Award for Most Outstanding Teleplay. Just about everyone has seen Roddenberry’s version of City on the Edge of Forever — Ellison’s version has never been produced for film, televison or radio.
Harlan Ellison owns the rights to his original, award-winning version of the most famous Star Trek episode ever to air. Paramount Studios owns the rights to the Star Trek franchise; they do not own the rights to Harlan’s script. What this means is that CBC Radio can produce a radio play version of City on the Edge of Forever simply by changing the names of the characters.
The free publicity for CBC Radio likely to be generated by mounting a radio version of Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever, coupled with the intrinsic entertainment value of the piece itself, is probably reason enough to produce the property. Couching the production within the context of the issue of creative ownership (conversations with Harlan Ellison and other artists who perceive their work to have been mishandled by others) might justify the production further.
I believe this to be quite an opportunity. Given Star Trek’s place in popular culture, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that a CBC Radio production of Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever could be nothing less than a cultural event.
Writers just love it when fans of their work create works of art based on that work. I’m no exception. One of my fans created clay versions of two of my main characters in A Time and a Place. To the left there you’ll see a good likeness of Jacques the Necronian.
And below, yes, there he is, the one and only Barnabus Jehosophys Wildebear! (As an aside, I’ll mention I didn’t choose the name Jehosophys randomly… it has to do with the whole Akasha subplot. I like little bits that resonate.) Not sure what happened to Wildebear’s left eyebrow… must have fallen off. That sort of thing will happen when you’re gallivanting around the universe. And I do believe that is Sebastian on his left wrist.
Now, I should point out that the “fan” in question here is actually my daughter Keira. And the truth is I’m MUCH more a fan of hers (and her sister Erin, who also creates much fine art) than the other way around.
Other Times and Places is a collection of seven of my short stories, six of which have been previously published in various magazines in Canada, Australia and Greece (one piece is new to this collection).
The blurb on the back says:
I’m pleased that the collection was edited by, and includes a forward by, Dr. Robert Runté, a towering figure in Canadian speculative fiction (maybe all speculative fiction, as far as I’m concerned). Dr. Runté is himself the author of many excellent short stories, as well as the editor of many fine books, including several by best-selling fantasy author Dave Duncan (who once called him “the best editor I’ve ever worked with”), and my previous effort A Time and a Place.
Because I’m a lousy salesman, I like to make it clear to folks that no one is obligated to purchase or read my work. I will still be your friend, your colleague, your brother, your son, your nephew, whatever it is that we are to one another.
I just won’t talk to you anymore.
Kidding! Of course I’ll continue to talk to you if you don’t purchase or read my work (I’ll just pepper our conversation with more expletives than usual).
Should you actually be interested in purchasing a copy of Other Times and Places, you have several options. If you like e-books, you can get this Kindle version.
If you prefer print, right now you have two options. You can order it online here for $7.00 plus shipping (don’t worry, shipping is only about one hundred bucks or so). Or if you know me personally I’ll have copies available which will also go for $7.00 (Canadian).
It’s also available on Amazon.com and hopefully soon from Amazon.ca (for some reason it hasn’t shown up there yet).
As always, anything you can do to help spread the word is appreciated. Add it to your To Read lists on Goodreads, publish reviews, talk about it, blog about it, hire planes to skywrite about it, make television and radio shows about it, hey, I’ll leave that part up to you and your eminently good judgement.