Monday, August 27, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9)


Some people believe that Jim Baen could walk on water. I am not one of those people. If you are one of those people, you'd best stop reading now, as you might otherwise read something that might upset you.


To the best of my knowledge, I have no connection whatsoever to the series of Keith Laumer's Bolo books that were later released by Baen Books. I have not looked at those books; I have not wanted to look at those books. My comments pertain only to my personal experiences in working on a similarly named project covering similar subject matter circa 1990. Any inferences you may choose to draw from the following comments are yours and yours alone.

For a long time, I blamed Baen for the failure of the Bolo project, but that wasn't fair. My oversized ego and I bear at least equal culpability. There is no arguing with results: the Baen method works, insofar as it produces commercially viable literary properties and writers with long and successful writing careers.

But like Amway, Clarion, or for that matter, Six Sigma Management, the Baen method works only if you are receptive to it in the first place, and then only if you are willing to make the total commitment required to really work the method.

In my case, once Baen signed me to develop and edit three new Bolo anthologies — and made it clear to me that this project was to take priority over any further work on Cyberpunk — I started off with high hopes and great enthusiasm. I re-read everything that Laumer had ever published involving Bolos. (Luckily, most of it was already on my bookshelf.) I put a lot of time and effort into writing a series bible, in an effort to collect the background information in concentrated form and establish some useful continuity between what were originally a bunch of one-off stories published in different venues over a span of decades. By this time I knew a sizable number of people in the sci-fi writing community, so I put out a lot of feelers, calling in every favor and presuming upon every friendship and acquaintance I had in an effort to attract top-notch writers to this series.

The results were... interesting. I got one stunningly infantile and angry reply from a Big Name pro from whom I expected at least a polite "thanks but no thanks." I got a lot of soggy-bar-napkin coauthorship pitches from other Big Name pros, along the following lines. (Paraphrasing now from some unforgettable pitches I actually received. I still have the original letters in an archive box up in the attic somewhere but don't feel like looking for them now.)
"I don't have time to write a Bolo story, but if you can find me a co-author, I'm in. Here's my idea: rewrite the old Ted Hughes children's story, "The Iron Man," only instead of a giant humanoid robot, the kid finds a lost Bolo. The rest of the story procedes the same from there."
(If this "old" (1968) Ted Hughes story sounds vaguely familiar, it's because you're probably thinking of the movie based on it, The Iron Giant.)
"Retell the story of the 47 Ronin, only make it a squadron of Bolos out to avenge the dishonorable death of their human commander."
(What was that about sci-fi being the literature of new ideas?)
"Do an SF version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only instead of Jimmy Stewart talking to John Wayne, he's getting advice from the old Bolo in the town square that everyone else thinks is a decommissioned war monument. In the end, the fatal shot is fired by the Bolo."
Somewhat more interesting were the responses I received from my contemporaries. It turned out there were a lot of writers out there like me, who had grown up on the Bolo and Retief stories and felt genuine affection for Laumer, and they sent in some terrific pitches. Well thought-out, imaginative, creative; stories that reflected recent advances in cybernetics and A.I., as well as military tech, and really would have taken the Bolos to a whole new level. In particular, I got one absolute drop-dead knock-out of a pitch from a writer who already had three novels in print for a different publisher and who had already proven beyond doubt that he knew how to handle battle-mech and armored cav action stories. I got a terrific pitch from a multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner who surprised me by being really eager to write for the series; a truly poignant pitch from a writer whose name you'd never associate with military SF but who was eager to prove he could work against type; and plenty more "pro" grade pitches, besides.

And then there were the ones that came in over the transom from people I'd never heard of before and had never contacted, and which I wouldn't have accepted for a high school newspaper literary supplement.

Nonetheless, my instructions were to forward copies of everything I sent out and everything I received to Baen, so I dutifully did so. And boy, were my eyes opened.

To be continued...