Like so many enterprises, science fiction and fantasy have given big rewards to a few of their practitioners and a pittance, or worse, to many more. Longtime fans will recall stories of Philip K. Dick living on pet food, or H. Beam Piper choosing a quick death over slow starvation. Howard Waldrop numbers among the numerous SF writers who earn far less than they deserve. In Waldrop's case this results, in part, from his preference for short fiction, no longer a very marketable product, over novels and series, which pay better but don't match his talents or inclinations. This is a great pity, for Waldrop combines a well-honed talent for story-telling with erudition, a nicely-perverse folksiness, and fearless speculation. His story “The Ugly Chickens” speculates on the survival into the present-day, in a Faulknerian backwater, of the most famous extinct species of all, and includes one of the most vivid dream sequences it has been my pleasure to read. “Custer's Last Jump,” co-written with Steven Utley, featured nineteenth-century paratroopers, Lakota fighter pilots, and a massive bibliography of sources, all invented by the authors. In “The Effects of Alienation” Waldrop staged a “Hitler Victorious” alternate history scenario for the sole purpose of testing its impact on Peter Lorre. “Night of the Cooters” pitted a small-town Texas sheriff (a thinly-disguised Slim Pickens) against H.G. Wells's Martians. One could go on and on.
A critic aptly called Waldrop's work “brilliant and berserk.” One could also describe it as labor-intensive and uncompromising. The author never hinges a story on one idea when half a dozen will do, and he never tells the same story twice. This makes it impossible for him to churn out the serials and hackwork that provide other SF authors with their path to fame and, if not wealth, at least self-sufficiency. Indeed, Waldrop apparently finds it hard to write novels: his humor, intellectual games, Classical references, and cultural ephemera work much better in the confined space of a short story or novella. He has, however, left us one solo novel, Them Bones, and it shows that, whatever the cause of Waldrop's aversion to novels, it isn't lack of talent. It is a multi-plot book of time travel, alternate history, and apocalypse, involving baffled archaeologists, Mound-Builder Indians, mammoths, lost G.I.s, Aztec priests, and a heady evocation of the lower Mississippi Valley, a place more alien to SF writers than Alpha Centauri. I read it at just the right time: in grad school, just as I began my study of Native American history. I reread it when I took my first trip down the Natchez Trace Parkway, a journey that showed me the dense interlayering of pre-Columbian Indian culture and early American history in the Deep South. “The past...isn't even past,” one Mississippi writer famously wrote, and Waldrop, born in Mississippi himself, show that this applies just as readily to Coles-Creek Indians as Faulkner's peasants and nabobs. Lying at the intersection of my hobby and my vocation, Them Bones remains one of my favorite books, and over the next year or so I plan to spend some time on this blog revisiting it and its many charms. I hope my readers will enjoy the trip.
(Above image, of Waldrop in 2007, courtesy of The Jeff and Wikimedia Commons.)