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May 2002

Posted 24 May:

Posted 22 May:

  • Martin Lewis reacts to Paul Levinson's appreciation of Attack of the Clones
  • Greg Beatty comments on Gabe Chouinard's essay on epic fantasy

Posted 17 May:

Posted 15 May:

Posted 13 May:

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted.

Dear Locus,
     As some of you are aware, Forry's been moved from Kaiser to Amberwood Convalescent Hospital, 6071 York Blvd., Highland Park, CA 90042. He does not have a fone in his room, but Amberwood's # is 323-254-7580. He will be moved this weekend from his current 3-bed room to a 2-bed room.
     He's undergoing physical & vocal therapy; two session each day. Bjo & I visited him yesterday (Thurs, 5/23) & Bjo was shocked at his appearance. He doesn't look as good as he did the last day in Kaiser, but still lots better than when I first saw him just out of ICU. Part of the problem is the move & the new routine of therapy, which makes him tired & upset.
     It's going to be a long process for him & there's no prognosis for how full a recovery he will make, but there is hope. Forry's beaten the odds more than once. He loves getting cards & letters, so please write to him & urge friends to do the same. Knowing how many people are interested in him and want him to get better will be a big help in giving him the will to overcome this.

John Trimble
24 May 2002

Dear Locus Online,
     I realize that it has now been a month or so since Gabe Chouinard's essay "Where Epic Fantasy Went Wrong" first appeared at Locus Online. However — and despite excellent criticisms having previously been made by Greg Beatty and Alec Turner in their respective letters — there are still a few of my own lurking around, waiting to be voiced.
     Personally I've always agreed very much with Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap (I forget his exact formulation, but it works well enough as a rule of thumb). This law applies to nearly anything you can imagine, to epic fantasy as well as anything else. Yet so many epic fantasies — and fantasy novels of all kinds — are published every year, that that fabled 10% begins to look not only pretty healthy, but downright roomy. It's hard to conceive of a genre where Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, China Mieville, and Philip Pullman can all manage to coexist nicely as "dead," creatively or commercially.
     Mr. Chouinard, however, seems to feel that nearly every epic fantasy novel published since 1955, which is when I believe that The Return of the King was published, has been a derivative blight on the genre, and he then proceeds to give us only two examples by name — those of David Eddings and Terry Brooks — to prove his argument, which is presented as something akin to received wisdom — we are supposed to say, "Yes, they do write terribly derivative books, don't they? Wow, epic fantasy is dead." End of discussion. Mr. Chouinard also goes on to mention John Marco, Tad Williams, and George R. R. Martin as exemplars of this problem, which he calls "writing the perception of epic fantasy." How the perception of something differs from the actuality is something no two people will ever agree on, but I would argue that in this case, the perception is the reality — you may not like the fantasy written by these men, but they are clearly working within a well-defined genre.
     To write a good novel, not necessarily one that will be a masterpiece or an Earth-shaker but just a plain good novel, the most important part is having characters that we care about. How many times have Shakespeare's plays been rewritten? Romeo and Juliet has surely been rewritten hundreds of times, yet people continue to love the story, and it occasionally continues to come to dramatic life — for all its flaws, nobody is going to seriously convince me that West Side Story is not a great musical simply because it reuses an old plot. It's the people within the stories we come to care about, not the milieu, not the language, not the maps that might be included. You can write a moving, exciting, or frightening novel set in your own backyard as easily as you can one set on Mars or in the Magical Land Of Kwabba-Zoom. It's the emotions, experiences, and ideas met along the way that engage readers, and if not, then something is very seriously wrong with the book. Lose sight of this focus, and you end up writing a technical manual (or an Elvish grammar, which I suppose would be the epic fantasy equivalent). Even hard science fiction — or good hard sf, anyway — carries this kind of focus (the bad kind gets bogged down in explaining how every stupid device in the story works, leading to the point where the reader begins to suspect that he or she has blundered on to an issue of Popular Mechanics from the year 2929). The structure, or seeming originality, is almost beside the point. A good writer will always make his or her work seem original, unique, or innovative, even if it's anything but, by virtue of his or her dedication to that work (and innovation is really nothing more than the unique pairing of two old ideas to form a new idea, not the creation of a genuinely new thing, which I think is impossible — we are limited in the number of new pairings we can create even by our own genes).
     I have an extremely catholic taste — I like literary fiction as well as I do mysteries, sf, fantasies, and stories about things that go bump in the night — and all I ask for in return is to be competently entertained (or, likewise, made to think so without being bludgeoned into it). Quality matters more to me than any other part of the reading experience. Yet I haven't had any trouble finding plenty of good fantasy novels within the last couple of years, and, in fact, I have privately thought that the genre was already on the verge of a renaissance. Mr. Chouinard's essay puzzles me precisely because he has managed to come to the opposite conclusion. His call to reinvent the wheel ought to be answered by any editor in the field — who can tell you precisely what happens when most young writers attempt to reinvent the wheel.
     I owe you my congratulations, Mr. Chouinard, even though I disagreed with virtually every word you wrote, because you at least made me think about why I enjoy reading fantasy novels.

Scott E. Miller
23 May 2002

Dear Locus,
     At the end of his list of reasons to love Attack of the Clones, Paul Levinson concludes "So how come so many critics have been disappointed? My guess is, they don't really love science fiction."
     This does present the answer but perhaps not in the way Levinson thinks. Critics don't have to love science fiction to do their job (though they may well like good sf) they just have to review films on their merits. Unfortunately Attack of the Clones has precious few of these.
     Almost all of Levinson's list is composed of technical points as if this was an ILM show reel rather than a film. This seems to be Lucas belief as well. The only bit of The Phantom Menace universally applauded was the pod race. So in Attack of the Clones he starts with a pod race look-a-like aircar chase then gives us half a dozen exotic vistas, some battle scenes and a climatic showdown. However, this amazing visual spectacle is hung on a narrative frame so shoddy, so preposterous, so risible as to be upsetting to watch. When the sound effects are one of the best things about a film you know something has gone wrong.
     Near the end of his piece Levinson asserts that "tone-deaf or myopic critics seemed to have missed" self-referential elements, such as Obi-Wan's quip that Anakin will be the death of him. You would indeed have to be deaf to miss this. More likely they thought it unbelievably crass. As with much of the dialogue and character based scenes this was executed in an extremely hamfisted manner. For example, later on in the film Anakin wakes from a nightmare whilst screaming "no!" for all the world as if this cliché hadn't been parodied for fifty years.
     After watching Attack of the Clones I am left with the same overriding emotion as after The Phantom Menace: anger. It is deeply frustrating to see so much money and technical skill frittered away on such an empty film.

Martin Lewis
21 May 2002

Dear Locus,
     I'd like to agree with Alec Austin's critique of Gabe Chouinard's recent article on epic fantasy, and to build on it. What Chouinard said was accurate, but only in limited and familiar ways, and even then only if Chouinard is allowed to define the terms used. Philip Martin's recent book The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature includes a section by Patricia McKillip on "Writing High Fantasy," which starts by delineating the existing formula in high fantasy, part of what Chouinard bemoans.
     McKillip is part of a long list of other writers who provide counter-examples to Chouinard's complaints. A moment's reflection suggests the names Patricia McKillip, Lloyd Alexander, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, Ursula K. Leguin, Orson Scott Card, Roger Zelazny, Suzy McKee Charnas, and of course, Philip Pullman. All of these authors have written works that are epic in scope and spirit. All are quite distinct from the Tolkien model. All have created wonderful worlds. Such a list suggests rather than being in a terrible state, epic fantasy may be in its heyday. Certainly, at the very least, it is alive and well.

Greg Beatty
15 May 2002

Dear Locus,
     Kathryn (our retarded adult daughter) & I went down to visit Forry Ackerman today. He'd just been moved out of ICU, and is now in room 634, still at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Sunset Blvd, in L.A.
     He recognized us & we were able to hold a short conversation with him, but he tired very quickly, so we didn't stay long. One of the orderlies, Rick is a good friend of Ray Bradbury's driver, so he's been paying extra attention to Forry. He said he lives nearby, so he's been able to visit him on his days off. That's good news.
     While Forry seemed lucid, he asked if we'd seen a recent TV special featuring him, Ray Bradbury & others. I said we'd missed it & he remarked that other people said he was hallucinating & it'd never happened. When he said that Charles Hornig had made a surprise appearance on the special, saying that reports of his death (like Mark Twain's) were greatly exaggerated, I began to have my doubts, too. Charlie Hornig has been dead for over 2 years. But I didn't say anything; he's entitled to his imagi-nations.
     Forry asked if the report about LA sf fan Bruce Pelz's death was correct & I told him that sadly, it was true & in fact Bruce had died last Thursday (which is the same day that the LASFS meets).
     It is quite ironic that the Kaiser hospital he's in is across Sunset from the LA Church of Scientology's big blue hq building (in fact the street just east of that building has been renamed L. Ron Hubbard Way!), considering Hubbard's long-ago connection to LASFS & the 40's LA sf community.
     Please, anyone who can do please visit him for the few minutes he's able to stand having visitors; if you're female, wear something low-cut, so he can ogle you. He'll love it.
     He's still in Building H at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, 4747 Sunset Blvd, L.A. 90027. Visiting hours are 11am to 8pm; remember, its now room 634.

John Trimble
15 May 2002

Dear Locus,
     I wish to correct the Locus report regarding Forry, as it has led to the spread of some very disturbing misinformation.
     Forrest J Ackerman is indeed seriously ill and in the hospital. I just spoke with the duty nurse and was able to confirm that he is recovering and he is no longer in ICU.
     I understand from people who visited him Saturday and Sunday that he has been getting so many phone calls and visits, including apparently lots of nurses, that he is in fact not getting the rest that he needs to recover (which I understand was also disturbing his roommate). He has been flirting with nurses and female visitors and his sense of humor appears to be intact.
     Because of his need for rest, it would be best to keep his visits and phone calls limited, but cards would certainly be appreciated.
     I hope this helps to clear up the issue. I know we all want to see Forry get well and don't want to do anything that would hinder his progress.
     Thank You,

Greg Barrett
The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Inc. (LASFS)
14 May 2002

Readings on Forry

[Letter to Recipient List Suppressed],
     Hi, all.
     For those who do not already know, Forry Ackerman is the hospital, Kaiser on Sunset. He had either a stroke or a heart attack. They are in the process of trying to rule out a heart attack.
     We just got back from visiting him in the hospital. First, they have transferred him out of ICU (as of yesterday) and he is now in room 634 in building H. Second, his face really lit up when Allie walked into the room, which means he can still recognize people. In fact, other than being tired, I would have to say his mental functioning is completely normal. He is aware of time passage and recognized people from family pictures we showed him.
     He cantankerously groused about having to stare at the ceiling all day and all of the poking and prodding (like blood tests) that goes with a stay in the hospital. He says he's bored, but the nurse says his phone keeps ringing, enough to tire him out, so go figure.
     Now for some real good news: while we were there, an occupational therapist came by and said that she would be back in half an hour to help Forry *WALK AROUND* (emphasis mine). Forry didn't quite hear what she said and wanted, winkingly, to know "What new torture have they devised for me?" in a voice of mock horror that sounded just like the Forry of old.
     So, for reasons of patient confidentiality, I can't really report on his medical condition, but if will and joie de vivre are enough, then I will happily dispute the claim on the Locus webpage ( [since amended — ed.]) that he is not expected to recover. I'm not a doctor, of course, but my Father looked much more ill and "out of it" when he was dying.

Glenn Glazer
11 May 2002

Dear Locus,
     Actress Julie Sands sent me the following message, which I thought might be of interest to you.

I saw Forry last evening in the hospital. He is critically ill (has been for a few weeks) and is not expected to recover. Forry is in Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd. (cross street Vermont), he is in Building H room 474A which is in I.C.U. It was very disquieting to discover not many of Forry's friends have visited and he is very lonely. He is paralyzed except for the ability to move his head, his speech is very sparse, but he is cognizant. In fact he let me know even at his age he was able to see my cleavage very well-lol He cannot receive flowers, but letters, visits (even by non-family members-he really has no family), phone calls and cards are appreciated.

As you know Forry has touched many of us in the entertainment industry and the creative arts. I know I would not be doing a movie as a horror vixen w/Robert Englund had it not been for Forry-I would have stuck to things like Shakespeare (oh Forry, what did you do??? ;) )

Bev Vincent
Cemetery Dance magazine
10 May 2002

Essence of Fantasy

Dear Locus Online,
     I think the points brought up in Mr. Chouinard’s essay are worth considering, but not entirely germane to the issue of epic fantasy. Certainly speculative fiction of all branches could do with more interesting and *ahem* creative world creation. But is it necessary that every story or novel break completely new ground? Of course not. That would swiftly lead to the kind of experimental paralysis that certain sections of mainstream literature are prone to, forcing everyone into contrived and odd tenses, points of view, and story forms just to make their readers pay attention.
     Also, despite Mr. Chouinard’s rhetoric as to how “fully-realized, highly-individualized, and wholly-unique” they are, all of Arrakis, Middle-earth, and Urth can have their origins traced fairly easily: Arrakis is the Sahara writ large, with giant worms which excrete space-navigation drugs, while Middle-earth is a transparent composite of English and Norse myths that had been used in various forms by Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, and many other writers of the generation before Tolkien. As for Urth, from The Book of the New Sun, its debts to classical history and Jack Vance's The Dying Earth are openly acknowledged by Gene Wolfe himself. Certainly, many epic fantasies on the market today are horribly unoriginal, but their lack of quality cannot be pinned solely on their worlds being underdeveloped, as even the most hackneyed of settings and tropes can come to life if considered with a keen intelligence. Considering how endless the stream of Arthurian romances, epic poems, and novels has been for centuries now, it would seem impossible to produce an interesting and original take on the Camelot mythology... and yet one seems to crop up every few decades. The same goes for stories set in ancient Rome or elsewhere in the classical world. What could be a more hackneyed setting than the Rome of Julius and Augustus Caesar? But somehow we still end up with the occasional I, Claudius.
     Mr. Chouinard accords The Lord of the Rings a special quality of originality over the course of his argument, asserting that it, unlike the books that preceded it, engaged in the full creation of a fantastic or “secondary” world. Furthermore, he asserts that the creation of vivid secondary worlds is the purpose of epic fantasy. Yet Tolkien himself did not create Middle-earth for itself, as much as for a world-context in which he could indulge in the creation of imaginary languages (and, as I mentioned earlier, Middle-earth's originality is debatable). In lumping together for scorn and derision almost every work of epic fantasy published since The Sword of Shannara, Mr. Chouinard is not only engaging in a gross over-generalization, but ignoring the many works which, by drawing on cultures and elements of history other than those utilized by Tolkien, produce fantasy worlds arguably more unique than Middle-earth was even when The Hobbit was first published. Also, the works which Mr. Chouinard cites as exemplars of recent fantastic literature generally recombine elements familiar to the educated reader in new ways: or rather, ways that doubtlessly seemed new to Mr. Chouinard when he read them. I fear that if I mined details and incidents from Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West and used them to create a fantasy world that was not transparently ancient China, both Mr. Chouinard and the majority of the English-speaking public would not be able to tell that I had not invented it from whole cloth, despite the fact that schoolchildren in China would be bored to tears by the results of my endeavor.
     I submit that, instead of pursuing some illusory ideal of originality, readers would be better served if the authors of epic fantasies put more effort into examining their works for signs of imaginative and literary laziness. At base, the problem with epic fantasy these days is not so much that it is unoriginal as that much of it which is being published is AWFUL — incompetently written, sloppily imagined, and shoddily researched. An author may have an original and intriguing world, but if it is drowned in interminable and mediocre prose and populated by cardboard characters, I would rather read something set in more familiar territory, even if said familiar territory is the present day, lacking any and all fantastic elements.
     Quality trumps badly-executed innovation any day of the week.

Alec Austin
7 May 2002

Seeking Suggestions

Dear Locus,
     A 5th edition of the standard critical guide to SF, Anatomy of Wonder, may be published if sufficient interest is shown by potential buyers. I'm seeking suggestions for improvements and comments from anyone familiar with the 4th (1995) edition, still in print, or the 3d (1987), OP. If you'd like to help, request a questionnaire by e-mail from

Neil Barron
Vista, CA
4 May 2002

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