Monday, January 12, 2015

Judith Merril on JDM

Science fiction writer Judith Merril began her s-f career in 1948 with the publication of the short story “That Only a Mother” in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Called by some of her contemporaries as “The Little Mother of Science Fiction,” Merril went on to pen four novels and several dozen shorter works. She served as editor of many anthologies, including twelve years worth of the annual Years Best SF volumes. She was politically active all of her adult life, first as a Zionist, then a Marxist, finally as a Trotskyist. And she loved the works of John D MacDonald.

Go figure...

MacDonald’s 1950 s-f story “The Big Contest” was selected by Merril for one of her earliest anthologies, titled Human?, which was published in 1954.

In 1965 she began writing the book review column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a position she would hold for the next four years. In one of her earliest columns, appearing in the November ‘65 issue, she reviewed MacDonald’s three year old novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, which gave her a nice excuse to expound her love of the author’s works. She begins her column by discussing her definition of what constitutes a “serious” novel:

Serious is not a word to bandy lightly. I am not talking about the publishers' kind of "serious," interchangeable with "prestige;" nor the critics' "serious," which is somewhere between "worthy" and "impressive;" nor the casual reader's "serious," roughly synonymous with "dull." I have in mind the writer's meaning: "important" -- to the writer.

I suppose all the shadings actually relate to "message" or theme. When a writer has something to say that is important (to him) he is serious about the writing of it. The critic takes it seriously if the writer manages to impress him with the worth of the statement... But I am quite sure about the casual reader's meaning: when the message obtrudes to the point of obscuring the action, the book is too serious.

It is the writer's kind of serious I am using here. Every one of the eight novels stacked in front of me [to be reviewed this month] is at least technically "light fiction;" they are action stories, adventures, thrillers. Yet all of them are vehicles for thematic statements and/or ethical explorations of utmost seriousness. One might almost entertain the hopes that writers (in s-f, at least) are giving new consideration to the quaint old notion that the best way to instruct is to entertain. And if seven out of eight do not quite bring off the double effort -- well, perhaps that is why they are "summer books;" and none fail entirely; and besides, there is only one John D MacDonald.

The MacDonald entry is not actually one of this summer's crop, but a reissue of The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything, which somehow missed being reviewed here when it first appeared. I am, frankly, pleased that the chance now falls to me: the opportunity to discuss MacDonald in an s-f column is all too rare.

The first MacDonald story I remember reading was "A Child is Crying." Since then I have read everything of his I've seen: short stories and perhaps thirty or forty novels: mysteries, suspense, sex thrillers, satires, and, infrequently, fantasy and science fiction. I have never read a bad one; and though I recall only one book that had the trappings of the officially-serious novel I cannot recall more than two or three that seemed to me to have been written unseriously.

The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything is the first full-length MacDonald s-f since The Planet of the Dreamers*, but he is not only one of the best s-f writers when he does it- he thinks like one no matter what he's writing.

MacDonald's characters do not live in the never-never land of most popular fiction. They inhabit the familiar world of machinery and motels, political upheavals and realty scandals, syndicates and supermarkets, conventions and court orders, automobile accidents, road repairs, floods and storms and fires and swamps, urban renewals and rural electrifications. They not only inhabit this world; they live with it: their problems come out of it and they must cope with it somehow to find their solutions. Inevitably, the characters themselves are genuinely contemporary, with mores and morals and methods recognizably similar to yours and mine and the people's next door.

I do not for a moment intend to say that MacDonald is a “realist" of the camera variety, painstakingly, painfully, recording the ordinariness of the ordinary. On the contrary: he is a storyteller in the grand style, a singer of bright romances, bold adventures, deep tragedies and high humor. He selects the unusual and colorful to write about -- but the selection is made from the richness of choice offered by the complexity and excitement of the world we live in. His heroes are almost always muscular and competent, his heroines beautiful and loving -- but masculine competence is technical as well as physiological, and feminine tenderness expresses itself as generously in bed as in the kitchen. He writes fastmoving yarns about situations charged with conflict and suspense -- but behind it all is an informed and thoughtful comprehension of the forces (natural, technological, political, economic) actually at work in our society, out of which the drama emerges.

And just every now and then, he also writes a gleefully balloon-bursting, pomposity-pricking farce. The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything is one of these -- to start with. (The Miami Scene, with settings straight out of musical extravaganza; beaches and bikinis, yachts and motels, conventioneers and arty-parties; plus the slinkiest villainess since Caniff stopped doing the Dragon Lady, the sturdiest secretary since Winnie Winkle got married, and the bounciest hillbilly since Daisy Mae.) It is also a solid science-fantasy, with some fine detail-work attached to the Gold Watch Gimmick. And (like it says in the title) it has at least a touch of just about everything MacDonald does best: cops-and-robbers, shipboard stuff, financial intrigue, slugfests, suspense-and-pursuit, and several varieties of plain and fancy sex.

Did I mention that under the antics this is a serious book?

*The paperback reissue of Wine of the Dreamers under its original title would not occur until 1968.

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