It’s a COOKBOOK!!!!

Recently I was remembering Twilight Zone episode 89 (1962), the one with the big reveal so iconic I don’t even need to issue a spoiler alert for it. You know the one.

This line of dialogue, “It’s a cookbook!” has entered the culture big-time, one of the first pop culture memes of the mass media age. Here’s The Simpsons version:

A friend in an mmorpg I play told me something I didn’t know, that the Twilight Zone episode was based on a great Damon Knight short story titled, as the episode is, To Serve Man. It’s widely anthologized; I promptly found it and read it. (Thanks, Aeolith!) The television episode is fairly faithful to its source.

Knight, one of the great writers of classic sci-fi, died in 2002. The obituary from The New York Times is a good place to start if you want to know more about Knight, as is The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Here’s another place to look, the obituaries and tributes posted on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America web site:

Knight’s story “To Serve Man” was a revelation. I love sci-fi when it’s good, but too often it’s not. Too often the author relies on high concept, maybe even great world-building, but these are not enough to make up for bad writing, plots that stretch credulity, and wooden characters. Knight was known as an insightful and brutal reviewer, coining, with fellow sci-fi great James Blish, the concept of “the idiot plot,” the kind of plot that would never happen in real life unless everyone in the place happens to be a total idiot ( ). Here’s a great interview with Knight about the famous controversy in which he decimated Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land–a review that Galaxy magazine commissioned from him and never ran:

Knight despised bad sci-fi writing and said so. “To Serve Man” is the opposite. It’s admirable sci-fi writing in every way, all the more so because its surprise ending actually works. I personally hate the gotcha twist at the end of too much fiction and too many movies. These twists are usually too clever for their own good, clever just to be clever. The Sixth Sense, for example, over-relies on a cheap trick to put one over on the viewer. Don’t even get me started on that thing with the crop circles, which apparently takes place during a profound drought–otherwise, no story. I’m no fan of O. Henry or any of his ilk.

By contrast, the ending of “To Serve Man” organically grows from plot and characterization. That’s the kind of surprise ending I do like, and they are rare. (The Usual Suspects comes to mind.)

The ending is not the only aspect of this great short story that works. The writing is matchless. It is simple, direct, muscular, effective. Here’s where Knight’s short story leaves The Twilight Zone episode in the dust, with its portentous Rod Serling intro and manipulative soundtrack, its bad acting punctuated with gratuitous cheesecake. And that poor silly alien! I like the Simpsons aliens so much better.

Whatever. I need to read more Damon Knight.



Re-reading TIGANA

Partly because I so admired it the first time I read it, and partly because it shares some themes with a fantasy novel I myself am writing, I recently re-read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.

Originally published in 1990. Available through

The main character of my own novel is a musician, as are some of this novel’s, and my own novel is set in a fantasy-historical past torn by rebellion and political strife. There the resemblance ends. Tigana is a long and immensely detailed and dense novel about a culture lost in the war between two powerful rival sorcerers. The protagonists of Tigana (there are several) are biding their time, waiting and plotting for the day when they can restore Tigana, their lost city-state in a fictionalized Renaissance Italy, to its former glory.

When I first read it years ago, I was mesmerized. The plot and characters are complex, the world-building is superb, and the background of political strife, as Kay stated in the afterword to the 10th anniversary edition published in 1999 (ROC Fantasy), was inspired by such actual events as the Prague Spring, Maoist China, and the Irish Troubles (p. 675).

Now, re-reading it, I was a bit dismayed by the length of the thing (673 pages in the edition I read), the overly-convoluted plot developments, and the lack of focus on any major character. In a way, though, it’s a precursor to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where we readers thread through the intertwined plot lines of dozens of characters.

This technique, in fact, goes back to the very roots of door-stopper fantasy in Renaissance works such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1636 pages in the paperback edition of the two-volume translation by Barbara Reynolds) and, in the English tradition, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1248 pages in Thomas Roche’s 1979 paperback edition) and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (869 pages in the 1977 Maurice Evans paperback edition).  These works use a narrative technique known as entrelacement–multiple interwoven narrative lines. Famously, of all the many such narrative lines in The Faerie Queene, only one of them ever comes to completion (Marinell and Florimell, if you’re interested), probably because poor Spenser died before he could finish the thing.

Nevertheless, in Tigana‘s narrative through-line, there’s a consistent drive to the finish–the attempt to restore the lost glory, even the lost name, that was the city-state of Tigana.

The characters are complexly interwoven, and they are complexly drawn. I really admired that aspect of the novel when I first read it and still do. One of the major characters of the novel, the concubine Dianora, sets out to destroy her enemy but discovers the hand she’s dealt is much more complex than she had realized. Likewise, one of the major villains of the novel is capable of horrifying evil (such as using a magic spell to burst the head of an enemy) yet turns out to be an oddly sympathetic, even heroic figure.

The end of the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it is embedded in a very ambiguous atmosphere. There are extremely important matters we find out about two of the main characters that only we readers know. Other characters, including characters who care for them deeply, are left in the dark. And. . . SPOILER ALERT–sort of–coming here: the last sentence of the book returns us to a mythic creature, the riselka, who makes repeated visits to characters in the book. In the folklore of Tigana‘s world, when a creature called a riselka crosses your path, this is what you can expect (p. 245):

One man sees a riselka
his life forks there.
Two men see a riselka
one of them shall die.
Three men see a riselka
one is blessed, one forks, one shall die.

The novel leaves us there. I don’t mean that we’re left hanging where the plot is concerned, or where the plot takes the characters. Those matters are all nicely resolved. But the world Kay draws for us is a frightening place where Fate drives the characters in unexpected directions, and that’s our last impression as we close the book. I personally found it very satisfying.

A devoted readership has grown up around Kay’s fantasy novels, and rightly so. He continues his long, distinguished career as a fantasy novelist, beginning with the Tolkien estate’s choice of Kay to edit J. R. R. Tolkien’s voluminous fantasy material after his death, to Kay’s 1980s trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry, to his many award-winning fantasy novels set in a fantasy-historical world. I haven’t read all of them, although I have read many. In fact, I have a vivid memory of the first time I read a Kay novel. I thought, “Wow, this is very interesting historical fiction.” And then I realized that there were two moons in the sky of the world I was immersed in.

True fans congregate around Kay’s web site, You can even find a fascinating collection of academic papers about Kay’s fantasy works posted there, including essays on Tigana. I’m one admiring reader who enjoyed my return trip to the world of Tigana. Readers who are truly devoted should go to the web site. A bonus is the entertaining and interesting collection of Kay tweets you can find there.







The Great Sci Fi Divide

This post started out as a digression from my obituary for Harlan Ellison. Ellison had mentioned in an interview the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and I’d wondered whether there really was such a sharp division between the two.

Many others have wondered the same, and have explored the issue. I recalled long ago reading Robert Heinlein’s Magic, Inc.–and that led to all kinds of interesting observations regarding 21st century ideas about science fiction/fantasy vs. old-school Heinlein-esque ideas about the genre (or genres).

The term that satisfies many who struggle with the divide between the two genres, and the question whether there really is one, is science fantasy. If you look the term up, you’ll find many online and in-print discussions of the issue, and of course there’s Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law. To wit: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

However, the debate was never that simple, and these days, it just grows more complex. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has many articles debating the issue and definitions emerging from the issue: see articles on fantastika, equipoisal, and many others.

When I was going about the pleasing exercise of thinking about examples, some of them from as far back as the moment contemporary science fiction emerged from the pulps, that’s when I recalled Robert Heinlein’s Magic, Inc.

And when I thought about Robert Heinlein, I quailed. I dislike Robert Heinlein (maybe that’s too mild a statement for my feelings about him), yet he was my entry drug to the genre. I’ve discovered mine is not an uncommon experience for a reader of my generation. Here’s a great discussion of my very dilemma: “Robert Heinlein, Baen Books, and Purity in Science-Fiction/Fantasy Culture.”

This article explores the cultural divide between two groups of readers:  “I came to science fiction via Robert Heinlein” vs. “Robert Heinlein–who?” The article led me to further thinking about why I despise Robert Heinlein (yet am still compelled by him). Although Heinlein might be best known for Stranger in a Strange Land, a book taken up as almost the anthem of disaffected ’60s youth, Heinlein himself didn’t come out of that world. Not at all. He emerged from the world of the 1940s and the pulps, and his blatant misogynism and his politics, especially those verging on fascist, were pretty disturbing. (What is a more disturbing read than Farnham’s Freehold? If you only know Starship Troopers through the jokey movie, go read the stomach-churning book–talking about the fascism here, not the spiders.). I recall with mingled amusement and bemusement the time Heinlein came to the University of Illinois to address a student group. The students all came expecting a thundering denunciation of Nixonian warmongering imperialistic America, because they mistakenly thought Heinlein grokked that, and they got an Ayn Rand libertarian instead.

A statement by Michael Moorcock seems right on the money to me. Moorcock writes about the space-opera romanticism of Leigh Brackett (1915-1978; a science fiction novelist and screenwriter who contributed hugely to the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back and to many other noteworthy 20th century films) in “Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett,” (Nonfiction · Reprints · June 13, 2002)  “To some extent the post-war rejection of gorgeous fantasy, of full-blooded romanticism,” Moorcock speculates, “was the result of our sudden growing up as cultures, recognising the results of Hitler’s over-the-top use of romantic propaganda.” Moorcock wrote of the passing of this type of science fantasy and its fascist tropes, but I think, to paraphrase the oft-misquoted Mark Twain, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. One shudders at what the Age of Trump might contribute, with its horrifying resurrection of an Ayn Rand-ish “I don’t care. (as long as I’ve got mine and I fight dirty to keep it that way) Do you?”

But twenty-first century hybrids of science fiction and fantasy–all sorts of hybridization of the speculative fiction genres–give me hope. I’m thinking right now of China Miéville, for example, and there are many others.