Maps in a mirror, p.73

Maps in a Mirror, page 73


Maps in a Mirror

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  Finally I struggled to tell him the tale, calling up more details with each one I spoke aloud. At last I had told him enough.

  “That’s Tunesmith’ you’re looking for,” he said. “By Lloyd Biggle, Jr.”

  Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Not one of the writers of that time who had made the transition into the seventies and eighties. His name was not a household word now, like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Bradbury, though all were his contemporaries. I felt a stab of regret; I also felt a tiny thrill of dread, because of course the same could happen to me. There’s no guarantee, because your works have some following in one decade, that you’ll still have an audience hungry for your stories in another. Let that be a lesson to you, I thought.

  But it was a stupid lesson, and I refused to believe it. Because another thought came to mind. Lloyd Biggle, Jr., didn’t become one of the rich and famous ones when science fiction became commercial in the seventies and eighties. He didn’t have crowds of salesmen touting his works. He didn’t have dumps of his novels near the checkout stand at every WaldenBooks in North America. But that had nothing to do with whether he had succeeded, whether his work had been worth doing, his tales worth telling. Because his story was alive in me. It had transformed me, though even then I did not yet understand how completely I had taken “Tunesmith” into myself.

  And I knew that if I could write a story that would illuminate some hitherto dark corner in someone’s soul and live on in them forever, then it hardly mattered whether writing made me rich or kept me poor, put my name before the public or left me forgotten, for I would have bent the world’s path a little. Just a little, yet all would be different from then on because I had done it.

  Not every reader had to feel that way about my stories. Not even many readers. If only a few were transformed, then it would have been worth it. And some of those would go on to tell their own tales, carrying part of mine within them. It might never end.

  Only a couple of months before writing this essay, I was talking to an audience about “Tunesmith,” telling them essentially the story I’ve told you so far. I began to speculate on influence. “Maybe that’s why I kept writing so many stories about musicians early in my career,” I said. “Songmaster, of course, and ‘Unaccompanied Sonata.’ ”

  Then I remembered that only a few minutes earlier I had mentioned that “Unaccompanied Sonata,” probably the best short story I have ever written or will ever write, was one of the few works that came to me whole. That is, I sat down to write it (having made one abortive attempt a year or two before), and it came out in one smooth draft in three or four hours. That draft was never revised, except for a little fiddling with punctuation and a word here or there. When other writers talked about stories being gifts from a Muse, I imagined that experience was the sort of thing they were talking about.

  But now, thinking of “Unaccompanied Sonata” in that double context, as a story that came whole and also as a story about music, probably influenced by “Tunesmith,” it suddenly occurred to me that maybe “Unaccompanied Sonata” didn’t come from a Muse at all (I’ve always been skeptical about such things anyway), but rather from Lloyd Biggle, Jr. After all, though the world in which “Unaccompanied Sonata” takes place is completely different from the milieu of “Tunesmith,” the basic structure of both stories is almost identical.

  A musical genius, forbidden to perform, performs anyway, and his music has far-reaching effects, even though he is snatched away without ever having a chance to benefit personally from what he achieved. And at the end, he comes to the place where the music is being played and takes his unrecognized bow. Anyone who has read both “Tunesmith” and “Unaccompanied Sonata” recognizes the pattern. It is not all that either story is about—but it’s a vital part of both.

  So of course “Unaccompanied Sonata” came whole. I knew how the story had to go; I knew how it had to end. After all, when I was eight years old, Lloyd Biggle, Jr., showed me how. The story felt so true to me and dwelt so deeply inside me that entirely without realizing it—at a time, in fact, when I didn’t remember “Tunesmith” consciously at all—I was reaching down into myself, finding the mythic elements of “Tunesmith” that felt most true and right to me, and putting them into my strongest and truest tales.

  There’s more to the essay than that, but that’s the part that talks about the origin of “Unaccompanied Sonata.” I hope you will lay hands on the Tor double of Tunesmith and Eye for Eye. Even though my novella “Eye for Eye” is also included in this book, I hope at least some of you will read “Tunesmith,” partly because of the great debt I owe to the story, and partly because it’s still every bit as good as I thought it was when I was a kid.


  There’s a perverse part of me that, when it’s in vogue to hate somebody, makes me want to say, “Isn’t there another way to look at this?” The national hatred of Richard Nixon during the 1970s particularly bothered me, mostly because it was so completely out of scale with anything he actually did. At no point did he distort or endanger the constitution of the United States as much as it was distorted or endangered by his two immediate predecessors; indeed, they were clearly his political school in just how vile a politician can be and still become president. I concluded at the time, and still believe, that Richard Nixon was hated for his beliefs; and even though I share almost none of them, I find I have at least as much contempt for the hypocrites who attacked him in the name of “truth” as for the man himself. In particular I think of Benjamin Bradlee, one of the “heroes” of Watergate, who brought a president down in the name of the public’s right to know the truth—the same Benjamin Bradlee who, as a reporter, was fully aware of and, according to some reports, complicitous in John Kennedy’s constant adulteries in an era when, if the public had known of this trait in the man, he would never have been elected. Indeed, the political life of Gary Hart should inform us that times may not have changed all that much! Somehow, though, the people didn’t have a right to know the truth about a man when he was a presidential candidate with views Bradlee approved of. The people only had a right to know when Bradlee hated the candidate and his views.

  Still, finding Nixon’s political executioners with dirty hands doesn’t cleanse his own; he did what he did and was what he was, and I for one am sorry he was president. Nevertheless, in the late 1970s I was constantly disturbed by the virulence of the hatred poured out on the man. It wasn’t Nixon who was poisoning America; it was the hatred of Nixon that was hurting us. That hatred was spilling over into hatred of anyone who sought public office; I think now it was the disrespect for the office brought on by both sides in the Watergate affair that destroyed the presidency of Jimmy Carter, probably the most decent, altruistic man to hold that office since Herbert Hoover. Heaven knows our system doesn’t often bring altruistic people into high positions in America. . . .

  So I wrote a story about healing. Not excusing Nixon, but not accusing him beyond his actual offenses, either. A vision of how to make America whole.


  My wife, Kristine, lay in bed and playfully asked me to tell her a bedtime story. I thought of a disgusting animal to spin yarns about, but then proceeded to make a fairy tale out of it anyway. Later I sent it as my Christmas card to friends who would understand not getting a real card with four-color printing and all. It was next published in my collection Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories, and again in my limited-edition collection Cardography. Few have read it, but those who have often declare it to be among my best stories. That makes me very glad, because the story, one of the briefest I’ve ever written, encapsulates some of the most important truths I’ve tried to tell in my fiction. If my career had to be encapsulated in only three stories, I believe I would choose “The Porcelain Salamander,” “Unaccompanied Sonata,” and “Salvage” as the three that did the best job, together, of saying all that I had to say.


editing my anthology of dragon stories, which was published in two volumes, Dragons of Darkness and Dragons of Light, I knew all along that I would be including a story of my own, one called “A Plague of Butterflies.” But in the process of editing other people’s works, an idea came to me quite independently. What if somebody were given three wishes and never used the third one? What would that do to the wishgiver? Because I had dragons on my mind, I thought of having a dragon be the wishgiver, and then, because I had been surprised at how few of the dragon stories were set in China (we Eurocentric Americans forget who invented dragons), I decided to set my story there as well. The idea of making my main character a middle woman came from the idea that she had to be, not a hero, but the opposite of a hero—which is, not an antihero, but the commonest of the common folk. When the anthology appeared, there was “Middle Woman,” a story I’m still very proud of in part because fables are so damnably hard to write. But I couldn’t very well have two stories by me in my own anthology, could I? And “A Plague of Butterflies” had already appeared in print under my name. So “Middle Woman” got the pseudonym—Byron Walley, a name I had used several times before when stories of mine were published in the LDS press.


  I usually plan out a story before I write it, but this one grew during the process of writing it, starting with the most skeletal of concepts: how hard it would be to deal with a great warrior in areas that had nothing to do with war. I thought, Just because a guy can slay a dragon doesn’t mean you want him to marry your daughter.

  So the tone of the story was tongue-in-cheek, at first. But the farther I got into it, the farther I moved away from satiric farce and the more I became a believer in the tale. I had no idea, going into it, what would happen when Bork reached the dragon. The dragon’s eyes were the inspiration of the moment. But for me the story came alive when I had Bork admit that he was afraid, and the dragon’s eyes dimmed. It came out of my unconscious mind; it was almost an involuntary reaction; but I knew at once that this was the heart of the story and all the rest was just fumbling around till I got there.

  Still, I thought it was pretty entertaining fumbling-around, so I left most of it in. I keep meaning to revise the story completely and sell it as a young adult fantasy. I even have an editor who’s interested in it. Someday, when I have time, it may exist in that more refined form. It could never exist in worse form than its first publication. Somewhere between galleys and the printer, somebody swapped two whole sections of the story. The published form was incomprehensible. It was years before it was reprinted anywhere, so I could set the text to rights; and when it was published in Cartography, the text was so riddled with typographical errors that I felt like it still hadn’t been well published. This time, I hope, we got it right.


  This story’s first draft was written as a love letter to a young lady who is now happily married to someone else—as am I. In that incarnation it was an allegory of our relationship as it seemed to me. After it became clear that my understanding of our relationship was hopelessly wrong, I still had the story—and, on rereading it, realized that there might be some truth in it beyond the immediate circumstances of a faded romance. So, when my then-editor at Berkley (my once-and-never-again publisher) told me she wanted a story of mine for an anthology called Berkley Showcase, I dusted off “The Princess and the Bear,” restructuring and rewriting it completely. It is meant to sound like a fairy tale—not the Disney kind of fairy tale, where cuteness swallows up anything real that might be in the story, but the kind of fairy tale where people change and hurt each other and die.


  During my time at The Ensign, I started developing a fantasy world based on the idea that different magics are acquired by serving different aspects of nature. There’d be stone magic and water magic, a magic of tended fields and a magic of forests, ice magic and sand magic. I still have many stories in that world that still haven’t ripened enough to be ready for telling—but one, this bleak tale of revenge that destroyed the avenger, ripened almost immediately.

  In a way, it’s a rewrite of “Ender’s Game”—a precursor of the way I revised the meaning of that story when I made it into a novel in 1984. The similarities are obvious: the child who is taken from his family at an early age and schooled in the arts of power, which he then uses to destroy the enemy of his people. But what I knew—and what “Ender’s Game” did not adequately convey—was the self-destruction inherent in total war. Even when the enemy is helpless to strike back, total war destroys you. World War I clearly showed that, for the nations that waged total war (America did not) emerged from their vindictive “peace” talks with the drops of blood from the next world war already on their hands. The only reason that America did not, after World War II, suffer the same moral blight that undid France and Britain after World War I was the Marshall Plan and Douglas MacArthur. When the war was over, we rejected the idea that it had to remain a total victory. The Marshall Plan in Europe and Douglas MacArthur’s astonishingly benign occupation of Japan went a long way toward redeeming us. At this writing it remains to be seen whether we will ever recover that moral stature. Certainly that’s not the rhetoric I hear from our supposed leaders about Vietnam or Panama or even the countries of Eastern Europe that lost the Cold War.

  There is an ironic footnote to “Sandmagic.” When I wrote it, I was still quite new in my career, and had no perspective yet on my own work. I thought it was something of a miracle when anything I wrote sold, so I had no idea whether I had written a good story or not. My best guideline, had I only known it, was Ben Bova. I sent everything I wrote to him first. What I didn’t realize was that he bought every single publishable story that I wrote. So the result was that all the other editors were seeing only unpublishable stories. It’s hardly a surprise that they didn’t share Ben’s enthusiasm for my writing. Given a lead time of a year or more between selling a story and seeing it published, they had seen a lot of really bad stuff from my typewriter before they ever saw any of my better work in print in Analog.

  One editor, however, seemed to think of himself, not as a protector of authors, allowing only their good work to come before the public, or even as a teacher of writers, helping them to do better because of his advice, but rather as one of the furies, wreaking hideous vengeance on any author who dared to submit to his magazine a story that did not meet his standards. And if that author’s cover letter dared to state that he had sold several stories to Ben Bova at Analog, why, that author was certainly uppity.

  But I think I would have had no ill treatment from this editor had it not been for the fact that he kept the first two stories I sent him for more than a year with no response. I sent him letters. I finally telephoned him. Nothing happened. He was a dead-end market.

  Then I finished “Sandmagic.” I was already getting much better at knowing what I had written; I knew that “Sandmagic” had some strength to it. I also knew that it was completely wrong for Analog. So, for once, I would not be sending the story first to Ben. I thought of sending it to Ed Ferman at Fantasy and Science Fiction, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing he ran, either. But there was this other magazine, this bottom-of-the-line magazine, that did publish some heroic fantasy. So I thought I’d give him one more try. I called him up and told him who I was. By now I was on the Hugo ballot for “Ender’s Game” and for the Campbell Award. I mentioned the stories he’d had for a year. I reminded him of the earlier contact. I asked him if it was worthwhile sending him the fantasy story I had just finished. “Send it, send it,” he said. And, uh, if I didn’t mind, why not send along copies of the earlier stories, too.

  By then I knew the earlier stories were losers. I shouldn’t have sent them along. I also knew this editor was incredibly lazy, and both the other stories were much, much shorter than “Sandmagic.” That should also have warned me off—he was sure to read them first. But I dutifully duplicated them and sent them
along with “Sandmagic.”

  What I got back was the most vicious piece of hate mail I have yet received. It was so cruel that by the end I could no longer take it personally. I knew he was wrong to tell me that I had no business writing science fiction—the Hugo ballot was pretty good consolation on that point—and I also knew he was hardly the one to tell me about what was and was not professional. Nevertheless, I thought it was a churlish thing for an editor to do. After all, he was the one who had kept my stories for a year without response. Any sense of proportion and grace would have required him to apologize to me, not excoriate me.

  A closer examination of his letter revealed something else. He had clearly not read “Sandmagic.” All his comments were about the two shorter stories. All he said about “Sandmagic” was “the other one was just as bad.” Years later, when he shattered all sense of editorial ethics and published a review of those stories that he had read and rejected as an editor (would you submit your fiction to an editor known to do such a thing?) he again reviewed the shorter works in detail and dismissed “Sandmagic” so completely that I knew he had not read it.

  As they say, doing well is the best revenge. I offered the story he was too lazy to read to Andrew Offutt for his Zebra anthology series Swords Against Darkness. He bought it, and within a few months it was picked up for a best-of-the-year anthology.

  However, when I catch myself getting too smug, I do remind myself from time to time that the other guy’s evaluation of those two short stories was, when you strip away the invective, dead on. They were terrible stories. They don’t appear in this collection and, with luck, will never appear anywhere on this planet. But if the worst thing I ever do in my life is write some really bad stories while on my way to writing the ones I’m proud of, I’ll be very glad.

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