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The Rim of Space on Audio

Blackstone Audio have release The Rim of Space on Audio as part of A Galaxy Trilogy VOL. 4

Scythrop No: 22 - Apr 1971

Scythrop No: 22 - Apr 1971


YEARS and years ago I was annoyed by the blurb before one of my short stories in the now defunct Fantastic Universe. It stated that I was a “Chief Officer in the Australian Merchant Marine”. At the time I was a Chief Officer, but in a British liner company maintaining regular services between the United Kingdom and the Australasian colonies. (Today I would say that I was “Mate of a Pommy Ship”...) I used to consider myself an English writer. I used to think that the late Neville Shute’s love affair with Australia was rather embarrassing to read about. But now that I have seen Alice Springs I can appreciate A TOWN LIKE ALICE, just as I have a deeper understanding of Cordwainer Smith’s Old North Australia after having travelled through the Northern Territory and northern and central Queensland. My own Rim Worlds, of course, are more Australian than otherwise. Yet to appear in print are stories set in the New Australian Colonies the capital city of one of them is called Paddington - and in the Lost Colony planet Olgana, the national song of which is a slightly re-written version of “Waltzing Matilda”, which has a huge granite monolith in the middle of its southern continent.

Seaman, science fiction writer specializing in Space Opera, and latterly an Aussified Pom... How did I get this way?

I’ve very few complaints actually. At a very early age I became an avid reader, my favourite reading consisting of science fiction and sea stories in roughly equal doses. My boyhood heroes were seamen and spacemen. I was born in the wrong time and place to become one of the latter, but I can, at least, write about them. At which juncture someone is bound to remark that my space stories are really sea stories and so they are. It was Heinlein who said, quite some time ago, that only people who know ships can write convincingly about spaceships. This is true, I think. The spaceman of the future, manning the real spaceships, will have far more in common with the 20th Century seaman than the 20th Century aviator. An aeroplane goes a long way in a short time, and can make an emergency landing en route if necessary. A ship goes a long way in a long time, with her crew and passengers cooped up in a tin box, and is - although not to the same extent as the future spaceship - a self-contained

The science fiction writer with sea experience has more than a nodding acquaintance with Manning Scales and the like. He knows how a ship making a long voyage should be run. He’s been there.

One story of mine which was a real sea story was “Sea Change” in Harry Harrison’s YEAR 2000 anthology. That was one with which I had to take very great pains, since it was being written by a ship master rather than a science fiction writer. My officers, I imagine, were very relieved when I finished It. “Chief, I have this ship with a conventional nuclear power plant. How can I arrange a complete breakdown of all; main and auxiliary machinery?” “Tell me, Sparks, how can I blow out the radio telephone transceiver?” - and so on. Harry Harrison wasn’t at all happy about the blowout of the radio telephone (“What about the circuit breakers?”) so I finally had to drag in the human element. The ship’s electrician was an incurable tinkerer and her nickname was Passion Fingers. Everything she touched, she fucked.

My favourite character is Commodore Grimes - even though every now and then I toy with the idea of killing him off. What annoys me about him is that he is always one step ahead of me in rank. When I was Chief Officer he was Captain Grimes, and when I became Captain Chandler he became Commodore Grimes. Even when, for a while. I was a sort of a kind of Commodore myself. (the title being, in the Merchant Navy, honorary and given by some companies to their senior Master; I was senior Master in such a company - which had, as it happened, only one ship anyway) Grimes became a sort of a kind of Admiral, having been awarded that honorary rank in the surface Navy of Tham, one of the worlds on the Rim Runners’ Eastern Circuit. Again, Grimes has sailed in command of an ocean-going vessel (THE SISTER SHIPS, to be published in Galaxy) whereas I shall never sail in command of a spaceship. Not in this incarnation anyway.

Still, I like Grimes. Like me. he’s a reactionary old bastard. Like me, he takes a dim view of progress for its own sweet sake. Had he been around in person he would, I am sure, have marched as I did in the protest against driving a freeway through the heart of Paddo. (“To Widen Jersey Road Is To Destroy Paddington”) But we were talking about science fiction, not about the misguided attempts to make Sydney a city fit for nothing but the internal combustion engine. How did Grimes and I get the way that we are? And was it worth it anyway?

Many ship’s officers think that it would be nice to have a lucrative sideline. Almost invariably, however, the necessary work and study is deferred until the Master’s Certificate, qualifying one for command, has been obtained. The idea is that until this milestone has been passed one should spend all one’s spare time “swotting for Master”. (What happens, of course, is that one neither studies writing, accountancy or whatever nor swots for Master, but just carries on having a good time.) Anyway, I’d always wanted to write, but put off any serious attempt to do so until that precious -Certificate of Competency was in my possession. I passed for it during World War II. At this time the ships of the Shaw Savill and Albion Company had been shunted off their well-worn tramlines and were running –to all sorts of exotic (to us) places, such as New York.

In that city for the first time, I decided to pay a visit to John W. Campbell Jr. editor of Astounding Science Fiction (as it was then). After all, I was a Faithful Reader of many years’ standing. John condescended to see me. He complained that he was very short of material and suggested that I try my hand at writing for him. I thought he must be joking. Nevertheless, the next time in New York I took him the precious manuscript of “This Means War”, about 4000 words which had taken me all of a fortnight painfully to peck out. (If anybody is interested, the story was about a Venusian spacecraft making a landing on Earth’s seas and being shot at by everybody, whereupon the batrachian captain sends a message back to his superiors to inform them that Earth has opened hostilities with Venus...) I said that I’d better leave a stamped addressed envelope for the return of the manuscript. John told me not to bother and that he’d send it back.

I proceeded back to the UK in a very slow convoy. Awaiting me at home was an envelope bearing the proud name of Street & Smith. It contained not a rejection slip but a cheque.

During the remaining years of the war I wrote almost exclusively for Street & Smith, although I was able to peddle the rejects elsewhere. I had stories in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Weird Tales, as well as an occasional sea story in the American Short Stories. Most of the Astounding rejects went either to Planet Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, and carbon copies of them all were sold to the K.G. Murray magazines in Australia. The reason for the pseudonyms - George Whitley and Andrew Dunstan used at that time was that John Campbell requested his regular writers to use noms-de-plume when submitting material to other magazines. That way he could say, “So-and-so writes exclusively for Astounding!”.

Raranga - Shaw Savill

Towards the end of World War II, "Giant Killer" (recently reprinted in Ballantine’s GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF SCIENCE FICTION) was written. At the time I was Second Officer of the old “Raranga”, one of the last of Shaw Savill’s coal-burning steamships. She had been torpedoed during the First World War, but had made port; we all used to say that the captain of the U-boat Involved should be brought to trial as a World War II war criminal - for not doing his job properly. Apart from anything else, she was infested with rats. We used to keep a .22 rifle on the bridge so that the officer of the watch could amuse himself on moonlit nights potting at the brutes. Everybody in the ship was rat-conscious.

“Giant Killer” was the third attempt at “the rat story”. I can’t recall the title of the first one, but it was written from the viewpoint of the crew of another spaceship which boards this drifting derelict and then nudges it into a sunward trajectory. John bounced it saying, “Try it again from the viewpoint of the original crew”. (That first story did sell, as it happened, to Walter Gillings, for a British sf magazine which never got off the ground.) The second version I really liked. It was called “The Rejected” - the title coming from the American version of ‘The lnternationale” - “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, rejected of the Earth!” The ship was a Russian spaceship, with a cargo of seed grain for the Russian colony on Mats There were bubbling samovars bolted to the bulkheads, as well as gilt-framed red-draped portraits of the Little Red Father, and all hands sang re-worded Russian folk songs at the drop of a balalaika. The vessel had a mixed crew, some of whom were married to each other, and there was a fair dollop of adultery and general fornication. And, all the time, there was this mess of mutinous mutants seething under the Comrades’ feet…

John, to my pained surprise, was not impressed. He said coldly. “I would point out that Astounding Science Fiction is neither Thrilling Romances nor a monthly edition of The Daily Worker. Take it away... and do it again from the viewpoint of the rats”.

I said. “What?”

He said, “You heard me”.

The next time I was in New York I was a house guest at John’s usual weekend party. I took with me the first thousand words of “Giant Killer”. John read this, then passed it to George O. Smith, who read it and passed it to Theodore Sturgeon who read it. Then they all asked, “Where’s the rest of it?” I replied, “There ain’t gonna be no rest unless John says he’ll buy it”. John said, “Finish it”. so I did.

Re-reading the story recently in the Ballantine anthology, I was amazed at how little it dates, and at how much better it is, as writing, than other material turned out at about the same time. The credit should go to John Campbell, who knew what he wanted and was determined to get it.

My appearances these days in his magazine are very few and far between, but I feel that he put me on the right path, as he has done with so many new writers. Three years ago my wife visited New York during a world tour. I insisted that she call on John, and she did so and was impressed. In her own words. “He’s the only man who has ever been able to talk me into a corner.” You have read his editorials... well, that’s the way he talks.

During the boom period I must have contributed to every magazine in the field, with the exception of Galaxy. As far as Galaxy was concerned, I just didn’t seem able to appeal to Mr Gold’s tastes. I got my foot inside the door some time later, after Fred Pohl had become editor. And then, with my promotion to Chief Officer (the Mate of a big ship, especially one carrying passengers, has very little spare time), production fell off. I was still writing, but only when there was something that absolutely had to be put down on paper. “Jetsam’ and “Late” are two of my favourite stories from this almost idle spell.

Then came the domestic upheaval that culminated in my resignation from Shaw Savill and my emigration to Australia. It was a fresh start in more ways than one, and not an altogether pleasant one. The step down from Chief Officer of a big overseas ship to Third Officer of a little coaster was a blow to the pride. I think that the resumption of literary activities was as much from psychological causes as financial ones. I just had to be some kind of biggish frog in some kind of smallish puddle. Slowly but steadily I began to make a name for myself again.

But after the boom came the bust. Overnight, all the minor magazines in the field ceased publication. One reason for the sudden collapse of this market was the proliferation of paperback novels selling at magazine prices. Like most writers in the field, I said to myself, “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em”, and so the transition was made from short stories to novels.

One result of the upheavals in my life was the creation of the Rim Worlds. The resemblance between the Rim Runners - the company owning and operating the Merchant Fleet of the Rim Worlds Confederacy - and my present employers is rather more than coincidental. Rim Runners’ ships are officered by refugees from the major shipping lines of the Galaxy, just as the ships in which I now serve are officered by refugees from the major overseas shipping lines. Again, some of our trades are as close to rim-running as you could get on this planet: the famous Strahan Trade, for example. (Speaking of which, the hold -flooding episode at the end of “The Kinsolving’s Planet Irregulars” actually happened - with the exception, of course, of the apparition of Commodore Grimes. It gave me a neat conclusion to the story. As they say, an opportunist is a man who meets the wolf at the door and appears next day wearing a fur coat.) The Port of Strahan is closed now. I should have been the Very Last Master of the Strahan Trade, but unluckily was transferred when there were only two more trips to make.

The Rim of SpaceThe first Rim Worlds story although it doesn’t quite fit into the pattern - was “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop”. This gave me the idea of using the locale for a series of stories, the first of which was “To Run The Rim” in Astounding. This was later expanded into a full-length novel, published by both Avon and Ace as THE RIM OF SPACE. Ace’s cover artist must have read the hard-cover edition before painting his picture; unluckily he illustrated a scene which was cut from the paperback. Another early Rim Worlds story was “Wet Paint”. It later was fitted into the Rim Worlds mythology, and its locale, Kinsolving’s Planet, has been used quite a few times. Grimes appeared in the early Rim Worlds stories as little more than a background character; Rim Runners had to have an Astronautical Superintendent, and he was it. Then somehow he started raking charge. As well as king the protagonist of quite a few novels and short stories, he is a writer himself and an acknowledged expert on Terran naval (sea-going) history. In “The Bird- Brained Navigator” he displays a grasp of the fundamentals of surface navigation. In “The Sister Ships” he actually sails in command of an ocean-going steamship. In “The Man Who Sailed The Sky” (also coming up in Galaxy) he shows that he is quite capable of handling an aircraft when he has to. And he bobs up in stories outside the general Rim Worlds framework. in FALSE FATHERLAND (called SPARTAN PLANET to America) he is captain of the Survey Service’s census ship, “Speaker’, and towards the end of NEBULA ALERT (my title was TO RIDE THE NIGHTMARE, but Ace knows best) he gets -tangled with the ex-Empress Irene, who doesn’t belong in Grimes’s universe at all. For a while now I’ve been keeping the two Grimes series running concurrently — the Rim Worlds stories, with the Commodore firmly in charge, and the Federation Survey Service stories, the early-life-and-hard times of the Commodore. I’ve brought him up slowly and painfully from Ensign to Lieutenant Commander; at any time now he’ll do something really horrid, get booted out of the Survey Service and finish up on the Rim.

Empress of Outer SpaceAnother character with whom I’ve had a lot of fins, although I don’t Like her any more than Grimes does, is the ex-Empress Irene. She, believe it or not, is -John Russell Fearn’s Golden Amazon, brainwashed and re-named. My affair with the Golden Amazon was… odd. Very.

It started when the heart-broken readers of the Toronto Star Weekly, in which the Fearn series had been appearing regularly, pleaded with Gwen Cowley, the Fiction Editor, to find someone to step into the late Mr Fearn’s shoes to keep the series going. I don’t know how many writers were approached, nor how many had a stab at it but I was one of them. Rashly, I said that I would give it a go. Never having been able to read Fearn. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I started by borrowing some ancient copies of Amazing Stories from Don Tuck in Hobart. The Golden Amazon, as she appeared in that magazine, had been a sort of Tarzaness, whose parents had been marooned on Venus as the result of a Mutiny In Space. (Fearn was one of those writers who, knowing nothing about ships, packed his spacecraft to bursting with hordes of useless ratings.) The parents died, as Tarzan’s did, and the baby, Violet Ray (a touch of genius, that name!), was dug up by the Things of the Venusian Swampland, acquiring superhuman strength of body and mind in the process. Later on she married a Terran engineer (who should have known better) and gave birth to twins, whom she named Hercules and Hygiea. It would be unreasonable to expect her to have any better taste in names than her creator. Any baddies wishing to annoy the Amazon would invariably start by kidnapping her revolting brats, whereupon she would tear them apart with her bare hands. (No, Virginia, the baddies.) And so on. And so on.

This might have been good Fearn, but it certainly wasn’t any kind of Chandler. Not a single one of the characters could I possibly do anything with - except the one obvious thing. The only solution was some tinkering with Time. One of my own standard characters, the Second Mate of a spaceship had to be slung back into the Past and onto an Alternate Time Track (to account for the jungly, swampy Venus) to catch the Golden Amazon young and bring her up properly. Also I changed her name from Violet to Vanessa. This effort, THE COILS OF TIME, was submitted to Gwen Cowley, who screamed “This isn’t my Amazon!” She sent me some back numbers of the Star Weekly and I learn; that this version of the Golden Amazon, although still named Violet Ray, had beep engendered by a Mad Scientist on Earth. (Meanwhile. THE COILS OF TIME sold both to Ace and the TSW.)

If anything, TSW's Amazon was even worse than Amazing’s Amazon. She had acquired a most horrid assortment of friends, enemies and relatives by marriage - Saturnians, Jovian and Ghod knows what else. There was only one thing to do - kill off everybody except the Amazon in the very first chapter and have her thoroughly brainwashed, in order to start again from scratch. The first two or three chapters and a synopsis were submitted to Gwen Cowley. She said, coldly, “I don’t think Mr Chandler likes Mr Fearn”. And that was that.

With a few changes the story became EMPRESS Of OUTER SPACE, and the Golden Amazon became the ex-Empress Irene. Irene appeared in two more novels - NEBULA ALERT and SPACE MERCENARIES. She appears again in THE DARK DIMENSIONS, together with Commodore Grimes, Marks I & II, and Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, borrowed from Poul Anderson. (I got the idea for that when stories about young Ensign Flandry and young lieutenant Grimes appeared In the same issues of Galaxy I asked PouI if I could borrow Flandry and he gave me his permission.)

My failure to exhume the Amazon is caused by my dislike for fictional characters of the Superman type. Not that I’m very fond of anti-heroes, either; the protagonist of a story, a thriller especially, should be just a cut above the average. My favourite comic strip hero nevertheless, is Li’l Abner and I never look at Dick Tracy. At the same time l am a James Bond addict; James, after all, was no Superman. and had his fair share of human weaknesses. Le Carre is a far better novelist than Fleming and his drab, shabby spies are probably much closer to real life than Fleming’s goodies and baddies - but… Could it be that Fleming managed to engender the sense of wonder lacking In the books by Le Carre, Len Deighton and others?

Insofar as my own characters - Grimes especially - are concerned, I try to the best of my ability to make them real people. Grimes, as Commodore Grimes, is essentially a good, solid, Twentieth Century shipmaster type projected into the Umpteenth Century, making do as well as he can with the materials and personnel at his disposal, in whom the spirit of adventure is not yet dead. Grimes – Ensign, Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander - is an overly zealous young officer whose enthusiasm does not -compensate for his lack of experience. And, with the exception of the various Psionic Communications Officers. Grimes’s shipmates could be found aboard any sea-going vessel today.

Would there have been the Rim Worlds and a Commodore Grimes if I had not emigrated to Australia? I doubt it. And even if Grimes had somehow produced himself by spontaneous generation, he would never have become involved in - and blamed for — the disappearance of Ayers Pock; nor would he have been the Astronautical Superintendent of Rim Runner. Nor, come to that, would there have ever been the villainous Captain Drongo Kane, Master of “Southerly Buster”, who exists in typescript - but not yet in print.

And Grimes would not have turned out the way that he has were It not for the women in his life. Make what you like of that — but I will say that it is Important for a writer In any field to have the right sort of wife. I owe very much to mine.

Finally... I may not be Australian born, but I like to kid myself that I have become an Australian writer.