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Dreaming Again

Grimes and the Gaijin Daimyo the first A Bertram Chandler story to be published in 24 year is now available in the Anthology Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann.

Chandler on the Scoreboard - Sean McMullen

There are many myths surrounding A. Bertram Chandler's SF: Chandler made a slow start, he never did well in readers' polls, his SF was pure entertainment, his Rimworld stories were an instant hit, he began writing later in life . . . he was a second rate writer. I am somewhat annoyed for having been seduced by the "slow start" myth myself in an earlier article, so I have decided to do a little research and give a de-mythologised outline of Chandler's career.

Chandler was born in 1912 in Aldershot, England. He began his career at sea in 1928, aged sixteen, and spent eight years with the Sun Shipping Company before joining the Shore Savill Line. Here he worked his way up to Chief Officer. Thus he had about fifteen years' shipboard experience by the time John W. Campbell met him and asked him to try writing for Astounding. His first story was published in May 1944, and is an amusing (if slight) tale of Venusian spacecraft being mistaken for German U-boats by the Allies and being attacked accordingly. The survivor's flee to Venus where their understandably annoyed leader intones the title's words, "This Means War". Chandler was 32 when he sold this story . . . Terry Dowling was older when he made his first sale, and Arthur C. Clarke was only months off 30 when his first SF was published. Is this "late" in life? Hardly.

The period 1938 to 1946, often referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction, marks the transition of the genre from facile adventure to rather more carefully thought out speculation. Like many of the authors of that time, Chandler brought his own specialist knowledge to SF, and was very popular as a late Golden Age writer. Very popular? The mythology does not support that idea, so bring on the facts. Chandler's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th stories in Astounding came 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st respectively in readers' polls. Moreover, out of his first 20 SF stories in magazines that ran polls, half polled 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Say what you will, this is popularity.

So what were some of his best? His well known "Giant Killer" (Astounding, 10/45) polled 2nd. "Special Knowledge" (Astounding, 2/46) and "Position Line" (New Worlds, #4 1949) both polled first, and both involve the imaginative use of contemporary maritime skills in new environments - in the former, the distant future and in the latter, on Mars. The readers of the time gave heavy weight to technical skill and imagination when voting, and Chandler provided just that.

The 1950's saw nearly 60% of his total short story output, and his average peaked at one sale per fortnight for a couple of years. With such volume one can hardly expect them all to be profound, and the themes did range from serious moral issues to bad puns. "Boomerang" (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, 8/47) is one of the earliest stories to warn of the danger of accidental nuclear war (and the setting was a race between Melbourne and Sydney to land a rocket on the moon!). "Next in Line" (Science Fantasy, SPR 52) is humorously told, yet is a quite chilling allegory on the inability of society to adjust to new technology. "Gateway" (Cosmos, 9/53) is an insight into how brutally pragmatic seamen can be when the safety of their ship is in question. "Familiar Pattern" (Astounding, 1/60) draws parallels between the first contact between aliens and humans (in Bass Strait!) and European colonisation of the Pacific Islands - the readers voted it second. Chandler did have a serious face, even if it wore a grin.

His sense of humour may have lulled less perceptive readers into making facile judgements on his SF - and to be fair, stories written around awful puns such as "Fall of Knight" (Fantastic Universe, 6/58), hardly encourage readers to take him seriously. His inventiveness continued to be popular with readers: Were-aliens ("Frontier of the Dark" : Astounding, 9/52, voted 2nd); missing the last judgement due to being in orbit ("Late": Science Fantasy, 4/55, 4 reprints); motivating soldiers who are the products of artificial wombs ("Motivation": Nebula, 4/58, voted 2nd); the idea that only civilised creatures would hold something captive ("The Cage": Authentic SF, 6/57, 10 reprints).

"To Run The Rim" (Astounding, 1/59) was the first Rimworlds story, yet it polled an unpromising 4th. Chandler liked the setting, however, as it was a galactic parallel with the Pacific Rim, which he was plying with his own ship after basing himself in Sydney in the mid-50's. Similarly, his Commodore Grimes character parallels himself. Another five Rimworlds stories appeared before his first novel, The Rim of Space (Avalon, 1961). Over the next decade his output of novels rose as high as four per year, and although not all these had Rimworlds settings, it is the Rimworlds books that have had the most reprints and translations - eight in the case of The Rim of Space. This is undeniably a measure of success, yet success of a different type to that which Chandler had had in the 40's and 50's. He was now building up an audience for Rimworlds characters and settings, which was rather different to the sort of audience that votes for "leading edge" SF. Is this bad? Even Asimov admits that he writes in the style of his greatest successes, rather than trying to stay at the bleeding edge.

In the last fifteen years of his life Chandler wrote a mixture of Rimworlds SF and Australian historical SF - and combined both in The Anarch Lords (Daw, 1981). In this period he won the Australian fans' Ditmar Award four times out of a record fourteen fiction nominations, won Japan's Seiun Sho Award, was guest of honour at the Chicago World SF Convention and even won an Australian Literature Board Fellowship. He did not receive any Nebula or Hugo nominations, but then these are given for the sort of SF that Chandler was winning readers' polls with in the first decade of his career - before the Hugos or Nebulas began. Even then, such later short SF as "The Bitter Pill" (Vision of Tomorrow, 6/70) was probably good enough for such awards, yet when it was published the fashion was for New Wave styles, as typified by Ellison and Farmer. If Chandler had chosen to write more of such SF, who knows?

Chandler retired from full time seafaring in 1974, with two thirds of his 40 novels and 90% of his 201 short stories already published, and he died in 1984. He was successful as an all-rounder: his SF did well in many polls and was often reprinted, he wrote with innovation and humour, established a large fan following, and sold a body of SF that many full-time authors would envy. So was Chandler second rate? Let me conclude by asking if Riley or Clifton were first rate? Who and Who? Just a couple of early Hugo winners.

Originally appeared in Eidolon 4, March 1991.
Reproduced with permission of Sean McMullen ©1991