Thursday, April 10, 2008

more on introductions and contradictions

Time for another introduction, I think.

Introductions are such odd things. You write them and you never really know if they're doing any good at all. For example, a few weeks ago this arrived on the FAQ line,

What makes you feel that you are qualified to comment on Bob Kane when it is obvious that you know so little about him?

You ruined my opportunity to buy a Will Eisner book by your misinformed comments on Kane which you included in your intro. (Kane, not Jerry Robinson, drew the Batman stories from 1939-43.) If you need more info, rely on valid sources and not rumors or gossip. Either that or I can send you an outline. I do research.

And, puzzled, I wrote back:


I was puzzled by your letter, so went through both of the introductions I did to books by Will Eisner and found a grand total of one mention of Bob Kane. I said, in the Nortons' CITY STORIES collection,

I wanted to know why he kept going, why he kept making comics when his contemporaries (and his contemporaries were people like Bob Kane -- before he did Batman, remember) had long ago retired and stopped making art and telling stories, and are gone.

Which leads me to suspect that possibly you read some other introduction by somebody else. Probably you should write irritated emails to them, instead.

best wishes


But it turned out the email given was wrong, and it came back. (I assume it was unintentionally wrong -- a quick Google showed a person out there with a name like the one on the email enthusiastically defending Bob Kane's reputation on Wikipedia.) So I'm putting it up here in the hopes that the grumpy gentleman gets to read it.

But every now and again you get something like this:

Hey Neil,

On the introduction theme I just wanted to tell you that once years ago, when perusing the stacks at USC, I came upon the Robert Silverberg section. "Hmm," I said to myself, "that name sounds familiar."

I picked up one of the paperbacks (The Man in the Maze), and lo! You'd written an introduction to it!

Of course I checked it out on your recommendation and discovered an amazing author I otherwise wouldn't have, and, of course, searched your blog and discovered that it was indeed you who had put the seed of his name into my head to begin with.

So, thanks! And keep on writing those intros (and everything else)!

- Theresa B

Which reminded me that there was a Robert Silverberg introduction out there that I'd rather enjoyed writing (and some people might enjoy reading). So here it is, the introduction to Bob Silverberg's The Man in the Maze :

The Wound that Never Heals: an Introduction.

Several thousand years on, no-one is quite certain of the details. But the meat of the story is this: Philoctetes was there at the cremation of Hercules, and was given Hercules’s quiver of poisoned arrows. And something happened – a snake bite, perhaps, or even a magical arrow dropped on his foot. Either way Philoctetes was injured on the foot, and it was a wound that would not heal. Sometimes they don’t.

The Trojan War had just begun, and Philoctetes went to fight with the Greeks, who were laying siege to Troy. There was a problem, though. The wound. It stank. A disturbing reek that made the people around Philoctetes sick to their stomachs. It smelled like the dead. It smelled worse than that.

Philoctetes was sent into exile.

The seige of Troy dragged on for another ten years.

And then someone dreamed a dream, an important dream, an oracular dream: if the arrows of Hercules were brought to Troy, then Troy would fall. They sent a messenger to Philoctetes, and invited him back. But Philoctetes had no wish to return...

And because the good stories last and can be (perhaps even must be) infinitely retold, Philoctetes’ wound is also Muller’s, one of the grim trio of men who cross and recross the stage in The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg’s 1969 novel, although Muller’s wound is not a physical stench but a spiritual one: a communicable despair, the terrible odour of the human condition.

It is a good thing, The Man in the Maze, will suggest, that we are insulated from each other: we are wounded by living, by mere existence, and we could not stand the stink of each other’s souls.

Science Fiction, more than any other form of literature, is a progress, and it comes with a sell-by date. Some old SF can become unreadable. Some reputations erode with time. What we respond to, once the sell-by date is past, is art and, perhaps, is also truth.

It was Robert Silverberg, an author of, amongst many other things, speculative fiction, who gave us a story in which archaeologists unearth the texts of the 1960s, fragments of Bob Dylan lyrics are puzzled over, lacunae to be filled. To some extent, we are in that position now with the speculative fiction of yesteryear. They are texts that cry out for context.

Silverberg has had a number of careers in his career as an author, and as a writer. Since his arrival in the world of SF he has displayed a wide-ranging intellect and a facility as a writer that gave him his early career as someone who could create a volume of competent fiction on demand. In the late sixties and early seventies he entered a period of remarkable fecundity and quality, half a decade where he cut deeper, grew honest and edgy as a writer, and made demands on himself as an artist that culminated in such novels as Dying Inside and The Stochastic Man. From there, Silverberg, exhausted, retired from fiction, then returned, using an SF writer’s perspective to take us into Elizabethan Africa in his historical novel Lord of Darkness, and out across the edges of fantasy in the Majipoor sequence.

The Man in the Maze is from the beginning of the edgiest period. I think of it as a bridge book, in that, while it is courageous, exploring new territory, with one foot in the New Wave camp, it is still mindful of its roots. From the past of SF we get the strains of Space Opera, replete with incomprehensible aliens and inexplicable artefacts.

We also get some strange glimpses into our present. Fiction that predicts and creates dates sometimes because it, of necessity, leaves itself out. In this novel, we find ourselves recognising the maze, in the way no reader could have done in 1969. The maze is an imaginative deathtrap – at the time an astonishing imaginative creation, one that is dulled today only in that it is instantly recognisable as the environment of a computer game – an exercise in reflexes and memory, judgement and imagination. The process of moving through the maze, using drones and volunteers willing to give up their lives is the process of navigating a game – get to the centre of the maze alive, avoid capture, achieve your goal.

It is too easy to take the maze for granted, now, to let it fade back into the landscape: but the maze, in all its incarnations, is one of the characters in this novel.

I pointed earlier to the story of Philoctetes not to give you a key to the novel you are holding (there are no easy keys to good fiction, nor should there be), but to demonstrate the tradition that Silverberg’s story is a part of.

The title is, I suspect, as important as anything else in grasping the shape beneath the tale. (It is the man in the maze, incidentally, not the woman, as a reader soon notices – the absence of women from the tale, except as courtesans and sexual memories, is one of the few things that makes it feel like something from our past.) As one begins to read, the identity of the man in the maze is obvious: it’s Muller -- who else could it be? But as the journey through the book continues and concludes, one finds oneself wondering who the man truly was, and what the maze: the candidates are Ned Rawlins, who has an honest name and an open face, our young innocent; Dick Muller, the book’s Philoctetes, the experienced diplomat and soldier and frontiersman, now in hiding and in exile; and Charles Boardman, the wily elderly eminence grise, manipulating events and people as best he can. They form a male triad, shading from honour and integrity to expedience and compromise: the male equivalent of a maiden, a mother and a crone – or, more fancifully, father, son, and a particularly shifty Holy Ghost.

And each man, as the reader will learn, has been given his own maze by Silverberg – a maze that moves beyond the physical, beyond the video game deathtrap. It’s an invisible labyrinth he has to walk, and inside which he hides – a maze of morals, a maze of ethics, a maze, and ultimately, of humanity.

Neil Gaiman June 2002


How wonderful that you linked to a Tim Minchin video! I saw his show in NY last Saturday and loved it. He's funny and talented and a very nice guy. I am a bit surprised, though, that you didn't note Mr. Minchin's last name nor tag the post with any part of his name. Not that you need to take up space in your blog to plug other people but I've noticed you typically do take the time to name the names of the worthy. (Last names also make for easier searches of your blog as it seems you know or write about a number of Tims.)


PS Minchin's show runs until the 12th of this month and, no, I don't work for him. Just a fan.

Quite right. The Inflatable You song was Tim Minchin's.

Hey Neil,

I have been writing stories for a while now, since I started reading your books, but I'm having a few problems. I have a story that is about 210 pages long now that I've been writing for about a year and a half, and I recently decided to revise it and edit a little.

The problem is; I have no idea where to start. I am beginning to forget some facts about the protagonist's past and whatnot, and it's starting to get very annoying. I want to move on, but I can't until I've straightened out the rest of the story. I feel like I'm lost!!

Has this ever happened to you, and if it has, how did you deal with it???

~your faithfully, Laura: a struggling 14 year old who enjoys scribbling random stories.


First of all, well done! I couldn't have written 210 pages of a book when I was 14.

What you do is up to you. I can offer a few suggestions, but they're really only suggestions:

Normally, I'd say try and finish the book however you can, just making progress forward. Then, when you get to the end, put the book aside for a few weeks and then read the whole thing through at once, making notes as you go about what works, what doesn't, what needs fixing or changing or expanding or removing. Having done that, do your rewrite.

But you're fourteen. And you've been writing this for a year. That's an age at which you change really fast. Right now you're learning about writing, about making characters and listening to them talk, finding out what happens to them. Still, the stories you want to tell when you're 13 may not be the ones you wanted to tell when you're 15. (Or they may.)

I suppose what I'm saying is that it's not a bad thing if you want to move on to the next story. You should finish the one you're on, because you should learn how to finish telling a story. But you're learning so much, whatever you do next will be much better than anything you did a year ago...

Hi Neil,

When you're writing a novel, how many really good lines do you come up with during the first draft? How much of it needs to be rewritten later on? I realize at this point, you're probably so prolific that you don't throw away much.

I've been feeling awfully discouraged lately, worrying that my first draft is absolute garbage with very little worth keeping. (Though maybe it's because I tend to write my first draft as a stream of consciousness, so when I go back and read it, it makes little sense and I need to fix it up.)


Gary B. Phillips

Probably about 90% of what's in anything I write was there in the first draft. Maybe even 95%. But it's usually the final 5%, the tidies and tweaks and reorganisations that takes it, in my eyes, from just okay to something I can be proud of.

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