Monday, August 13, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 6)

By the time I discovered there was such a thing as SFWA, I'd already sold enough short stories to qualify for full voting membership. By the time I discovered those small chunks of very alternative and temporary reality known as "cons," I was already being invited to them to appear on panels and be comped in as a pro. And while it's tempting to go off now on a riff about the utter weirdness of sci-fi cons — and maybe I will, some other time — I'd rather take these next few minutes to remember some of the terrific friends I made through cons and SFWA.

Any such list is of necessity far too short and riddled with omissions. Some of the folks I got to know and admire were already the elder statesmen and women of the field: Ben Bova, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen (who was den-mother to so many of us), Anne McCaffrey, Barry Longyear, Gordy Dickson, Hal Clement, Algis Budrys, Roger Zelazny, Fred Pohl, Fred Saberhagen... Meeting Arthur C. Clarke was awesome. Meeting Ray Bradbury was stunning beyond words, because he recognized my name and started to tell me how much he liked a story I'd just had published. I think I managed to find my jaw on the floor, get my mouth closed, and stammer out a few words beyond, "Uh, uh, Bradbury!"

I never met Heinlein. I never got up the nerve to approach Madeleine L'Engle, even though I had my old hardcover copy of A Wrinkle in Time in my hands and ready to be signed.

Other old friends I can only think of now with a twinge of sadness, because they checked out far too soon: the troubled George Alec Effinger, the ever-entertaining John M. Ford, the generous-to-a-fault Marj Krueger, the astonishingly patient John Brunner — I was drinking with him the night he died, which still creeps me out a bit — and most of all John Sladek, who I still miss and really wish I could talk to once in a while. Then there were the up-and-coming 900-lb. gorillas in our midst: David Brin, Rob Sawyer, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear... Most of the latter qualify as "near-friends" or "professional associates" or something like that. Brin and Sawyer will still talk to me, once in a while, but Greg's been noticeably cool ever since I cracked a mild joke at his expense about Rogue Planet.

The lists go on and on. There are the candidates for sainthood, like Patricia Wrede and Lois McMaster Bujold; the utter geniuses, like Robert Metzger; and a whole host of people you should have heard of but probably haven't, because they just didn't get the breaks, like William Barton, Jennifer Roberson, John Barnes, Mickey Reichert, and Chuq von Rospach. There's the adorable Hillary Moon Murphy; the sparkling Laurel Winter; and the sadly miscast Eric Heideman. There's Joel Rosenberg, who, while I wouldn't exactly want him walking point for me — he's kind of on the large and noisy side — there is no one in the world I'd trust more to watch my six.

And then there's Phil Jennings.

Phil and I had led bizarrely parallel lives, up to the point when our paths finally intersected. We met in a writing group that Eric Heideman organized in Minneapolis in the early '80s, right after Phil had just made his first pro sale to F&SF and I'd just just made mine to Amazing. After that we quickly became both best friends and toughest critics. Our kids were in overlapping age ranges; our wives got along well. For most of the '80s we were in a kind of friendly competition, critiquing the hell out of each other's work and dueling to make short story sales. The one noticeable difference between us was that Phil was selling regularly to Asimov's, while I couldn't get into that magazine on a bet — but I didn't care, because everything I was writing was selling anyway, usually to Amazing or Aboriginal. (In hindsight, this was a bad strategery on my part.) Sometimes we critiqued and revised each other's work so heavily that it was hard to tell where the Jennings story left off and the Bethke story began, or vice versa, but the only official collaboration we ever did was a story I wrote and Phil touched up, that we sent off to Asimov's, to test the theory that a story coming from Jennings' return address would make it to Dozois when a story coming from Bethke's return address wouldn't get a first look. To this day, "The Death of the Master Cannoneer" remains my one and only appearance in the pages of Asimov's.

As the '80s wore on, though, the truth began to become apparent to both of us. While short stories are cool — they're the hit singles of the literary world — novels are where the careers and money are at. So we got into a novel race.

I had a rock & roll novel I'd been beating on for years, but had gradually come to accept the truth of Frank Zappa's observation, "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't speak for the benefit of people who can't read." I also had a lousy military SF novel that was going nowhere, because it was being written from the wrong political point of view for that subsection of the market, but bits and pieces of it would later be recycled to become part of the foundation for Rebel Moon. I was working on the story cycle that had evolved from the original "Cyberpunk" and would eventually become the novel, Cyberpunk, but at that point in time it really hadn't gelled into anything resembling a book yet.

Consequently Phil scored first, in late '86 or '87, with Tower to the Sky:

The demented part is that was not the original title. I can't remember what it was when Phil showed me the manuscript that he was just about to send off to Jim Baen, but I do remember that I didn't like it, and suggested that he change it to something more blunt and direct that got the core concept of the story, "Like, oh, Tower to the Sky." I also wrote a few paragraphs of sales pitch for his cover letter, which ultimately became the back-cover jacket copy, and in a final jab told him he'd started the story in the wrong place, and needed to back it up and start it just a little earlier in his lead character's narrative. Then I wrote a rough draft for a proper beginning to the book, which he rewrote and assimilated into the manuscript as the prologue and first chapter.

All of this was to cause much trouble just a bit over two years later, when Jim Baen finally figured out what we had done.

To be continued...