Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Planet Stories and I

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I am a huge supporter of Paizo's Planet Stories line of books, which brought back into print many seminal works of pulp fantasy and science fiction. I happily took out a subscription in order to support the company's desire, which I also share, to "provid[e] a better understanding of the genre with classic stories that easily stand the test of time." And, if you look at the early entries in the series -- C.L. Moore's tales of Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis stories, Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark adventures, and many others -- you can see that Paizo made good on that desire. As someone who has an abiding interest in the literary inspirations of our hobby, I was ecstatic to see a publisher putting out attractive, accessible, and reasonably priced editions of seminal authors as diverse as Abraham Merritt, Manly Wade Wellman, and Otis Adelbert Kline.

Lately, though, with exception of the Wellman Silver John collection about which I've been raving, my enthusiasm for Planet Stories has been waning. Early on, I remember hearing complaints from others that many of the authors whose works were highlighted weren't "worthy" of being included, as they were of interest only to weirdos like myself. Naturally, I disagreed and indeed was pleased to see that some more obscure authors were getting the chance to present themselves and their stories to the world once again, thanks to Planet Stories.

Ironically, I now share the opinion of those critics, even if the authors I wouldn't consider worthy are different ones. Yesterday, I received my latest Planet Stories volume, a monstrous tome (450 pages in length) called The Walrus & The Warwolf by an author I'd never heard of, Hugh Cook. If the length hadn't put me off, reading China Miéville's praise of it as "meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde" certainly did so. Doing some research, I discovered that the novel is the fourth volume of a 10-volume series that was intended to be part of a larger series that would have encompassed 60 volumes. I can't say this new information did much to decrease my wariness.

I'm willing to forgive an occasional misfire in a series of books. After all, even the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series had its fair share of clunkers. (And it may even be that The Walrus & The Warwolf is something I will actually like once I get round to reading it). But two other recent releases, both by Piers Anthony, an author I don't particularly like, have sort of shattered my faith in Planet Stories, with only November's The Complete Hok the Mighty collection exciting me (and Before They Were Giants really disappointing me) among the installments announced for this year.

Now, maybe I'm being overly critical. Or maybe I had false expectations for the line. I don't know. I had assumed that most, if not all, of the books in the series would be works of older pulp fiction (i.e. pre-1970 or thereabouts). It may well be that there's not much of a market for such stuff and Paizo is simply shifting ground in order to be able to keep Planet Stories going at all. I know that the change from monthly to bimonthly was a result of such concerns. I can't blame Paizo for wanting to make some money off their efforts, but, speaking only for myself, if they can't do that according to the original vision of Planet Stories, I'd just as soon see it end. Much as I appreciate being able to get nice, new editions of classic SF and fantasy, I don't want to have to pay for other stuff that doesn't interest me to do it.

So, I don't know. I've already gotten several books through my subscription that don't appeal to me as it is. Do I want more just so I can get a discount on The Complete Hok the Mighty at year's end? I'm increasingly thinking not and that saddens me.


  1. This is the reason I don't subscribe. Instead I pick and choose the books I want from the Planet Stories line-up. Receiving the subscriber discount isn't worth getting a lot of books I'm not likely to read. Also, given that my house is only so big - I'm having to become selective about which books I choose to buy, if only to conserve my rapidly declining shelf space.

  2. yeah some of the oddities in the line is what kept me from getting a sub.

    so far I've only actually bought 2 volumes from them. Black God's Kiss and Elak of Atlantis.. I will be getting the Complete HOK though when it comes out.

    Sword and planet isn't really my cup of tea, and they don't really seem to have a lot thats sword and sorcery oriented.

  3. On a different tack, has anybody read the Harold Lamb reprints?

  4. I haven't purchased the Lamb reprints yet, but I keep thinking about doing so. If I do cancel my Planet Stories subscription, as seems likely, I may well grab the two Lamb books that are already out.

  5. I can't recommend giving Hugh Cook a try strongly enough; he is hands-down my favorite fantasy discovery of the last five years. Gygax was a fan too: the American editions of the books have a blurb from him, quoted in part at the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness website: "he understands both fantasy and humanity."

    Cook has much in common with Jack Vance and Michael Shea - a mordant interest in human nature - but adds an empathy and warmth towards ordinary human moments that the latter especially lacks. His world is much like the Wilderlands or the Dying Earth in that it's rife with poorly-understood artifacts from a distant past and perpetually in the violent throes of its continuing historical pageant. Cook's writing throws off ideas and races through incidents at a fantastic clip - it's hard to believe he can write a 450-page book (or plan a 60 volume series) with the pace, inventiveness, and intensity of one of early Moorcock's much slimmer DAW paperbacks. The fact that Cook pulls it off is, IMO, an achievement on the scale of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series.
    - Tavis

  6. Tavis,

    I certainly plan to give Cook a fair shake in due course, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that his inclusion in the Planet Stories line deviates a fair bit from my expectation that the series would focus on "classic fantasy for a new era," as the blurb says. I expected Planet Stories to stick primarily, if not exclusively, to early pulp fantasy and I'm more than a little disappointed that it's veered off that course in the last year.

  7. Words cannot describe the feeling of horror that came over me when I realised that Planet Stories had chosen to put out a new edition of Piers Anthony's eye-wateringly terrible Battle Circle novels. If only they could have reached the heights of eminent forgettability which Piers Anthony was later to achieve...

  8. Yeah, I would be way more pissed about a Piers Anthony reprint than I would be about an author I'd never heard of. Kind of like how I'd rather go on a blind date than out to dinner with someone I know I don't like.
    Anyway, I'm going to order the Hugh Cook novel. It sounds nifty.

  9. Don't get me wrong: I'm not keen on the Piers Anthony stuff, but I'd have been willing to stomach it if I expected there to be more truly classic pulp fantasy/SF on the horizon. Except for the Hok book, the rest of the year looks pretty dismal (and lacking the "Planet Stories" masthead on most volumes, which I think is very telling).

  10. I also find it kind of funny that out of all the Paizo reprints, the only ones I can reliably find in stores are the Peirs Anthony Reprints..

  11. The planet stories line does include some real classic that deserve to be in print like C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett but many of the others I already own or don't care for.

    I was also disappointed when they changed to the cheaper paper last year.

    There are other good options like the Bison Press Frontiers of the Future and the Harold Lamb reprints.

  12. I know that getting the rights to publish certain texts might come with some difficulty, but it would be nice to see Planet Stories versions of the Harold Shea series and the long out of print (and according to J. Eric Holmes) influential to D&D "Solomon's Stone" story by DeCamp.

    I understand that Howardians tend to dislike old Sprague for his overly Freudian look at Howard, and his hackwork in the Conan books, but his own stories are quite good.

    Naturally, we would also need Vance stories.

  13. Like others have said here I think you are seeing the problem of a subscription based product. I love Paizo as a company, and know they came from the magazine industry with Dragon and Dungeon, but pushing subscriptions to adventures and book lines is a bit much.

    I never understood why anyone would subscribe to these kinds of things versus just picking up the ones you want when you want them.

  14. From what I understand, Planet Stories is its own line, and I believe Mona said they are branching out to more general novels in the future. So subs to PS don't mean you'll get all of Paizo's novels. I think they will be labeled as such.

  15. Shame to see Paizo take this deviation from the stated aims of the project. Smells bad. I was hoping to see some of the overlooked Sword & Sorcery stuff like John Jakes, David Smith, or even Sprague de Camp's stuff get a shot are re-printing...not Piers Anthony. Oron, Ursus of Ultima Thule, Lord Tedric...even some of Purtill's or Thomas Burnett Swann's stuff would have been at least worth considering. But nope.

    Lorrah's Savage Empire series might have been fun to see as well.

    If they're going to do Sword & Planet / Pupish Scifi so much, why not reprint some Cordwainer Smith, some of the OoP Jack Vance classics, or how about a Karnacki Collection that puts Hodgson's psychic detective out there next to Silver John?

    Thanks for posting this: I'm seriously re-considering my subscription now. No sense supporting what goes in a direction I'm not interested in following.

  16. I've only read one Hugh Cook novel, I think it was The Wizards and the Warriors, and it struck me as a somewhat generic post-Tolkien fantasy, enlivened greatly by a streak of black humour, all of which made it feel a lot like the tone of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It also had a great idea for a magic item in it, one I've wanted to use in a game for years. I remember the book standing on its own quite well, not requiring previous knowledge of the series, nor leaving its story to be finished in a later volume. Then again, it didn't make me want to rush out and buy the other books, either.

  17. Cannot recommend Lamb enough. I am currently reading Wolf of the Steppes, the first volume of the cossack collection and it is great. Lamb's influence on Howard is apparent; I often feel I am reading Howard, very good Howard at that.

    Further, the man knew the history, and the lands and peoples he was writing about. His sensibilities and outlook are remarkably palatable for an early 20th century writer as well.

    I will be buying all the Lamb reprints as money allows.

  18. I can't stand China Miéville, and I can't imagine liking something he praised.

  19. If the length hadn't put me off, reading China Miéville's praise of it as "meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde" certainly did so.

    ALERT! We have a pretentiousness siezure - patient 'Miéville.' Get the crash cart, he's coding!

  20. Not to drag things too far off topic, but Miéville's The Scar totally did it for me. All his others have totally disappointed me.

  21. scar was probably inspired by the walrus and warwolf.

    i think that good question would be: is it necessary for a book to be of a proper age to be 'pulp'. or are you disappointed because you expected for planet stories to concentrate on 'historical' pulp?

  22. I'm disappointed that the books I've been receiving lately are not older pulp, which is what I expected, given that Planet Stories bills itself as "classic fantasy for a new era."

  23. I'm glad Planet Stories is branching out. I was afraid I'd have to read even more Gygax than I could handle.

    Different strokes, of course.

  24. The thing is I don't mind Paizo branching out fiction-wise, but, at this point, I'm starting to wonder what the focus of the Planet Stories line is. When it was launched, I was under the distinct impression that it would be reprints of older SF and fantasy, seminal works of these genres that'd been out of print or hard to obtain. If Paizo wants to publish Hugh Cook or Piers Anthony, I don't begrudge their doing so, but do these authors really belong in the Planet Stories line?

    Maybe they do and I'm just being terribly narrow-minded. Maybe I was laboring under a misapprehension about the purpose of the series, but, after three books out of the last four not being the kind of stuff I was expecting, my interest is nearly nil now. I'll buy the Wellman Hok collection in November and I'll keep an eye on future releases to see if they're books I might like, but otherwise I'm moving on to support other lines that give me the books I was hoping for from Planet Stories.

  25. well you being narrow-minded is like saying that chesterton is little bit catholic dogmatic :)

    but in both of these cases it works to your advantage and is translated into great wit and insight (not that i am like saying you are chesterton but you are chesterton of gaming anyways).

    on the other hand i would argue that hugh cook definately has his place in the planet stories line.

    on the other hand giants anthology seems a little bit odd to say at least.

  26. I'll echo the comments of the others and say that 'The Walrus and the Warwolf' is definitely worth your time - a truly neglected classic. But the book is more a reply to Tolkien than anything to do with the 'Sword and Planet' genre.

  27. But the book is more a reply to Tolkien

    As if I needed more reasons to be skeptical of it! :) (Though that would explain Miéville's praise of it)

  28. I was dubious about the Cook book - but I have started it, and it is rather good. (Read about 20%) Certainly considerably better than the Hok stories. Funny, too.

    Clearly others have rights to Cordwainer Smith - you can buy all of it from Baen whenever you want.

    Reprinting common public domain work wouldn't be too sensible either - e.g. Carnacki.

  29. I have multiple subscriptions to various Piazo lines, but....I've canceled my planet stories one.

    Too many books I was just not interested in. I've gotten some ones I never would have known, but too many I have no ineterest in.

  30. When it was launched, I was under the distinct impression that it would be reprints of older SF and fantasy, seminal works of these genres that'd been out of print or hard to obtain. If Paizo wants to publish Hugh Cook or Piers Anthony, I don't begrudge their doing so, but do these authors really belong in the Planet Stories line?

    Maybe they do and I'm just being terribly narrow-minded.

    The thing is, a lot of these stories are from an earlier era, but as we get older there is a sliding scale of what counts as classic. The 70s stories of Piers Anthony were 40 years ago. I'm not sure Swords and Sorcery, Pulp-like fiction, etc, has to be limited to anything before the 1960s, does it? All PS guarantees is that they are "personally selected by Erik Mona and Paizo's award-winning editorial staff, each Planet Stories volume has been chosen with the interests of fantasy and science fiction enthusiasts and gamers in mind. ...Each Planet Stories edition is a Paizo exclusive—you cannot get these titles from any other publisher."

    As we get older there are likely to be new classics.

  31. I'm not sure Swords and Sorcery, Pulp-like fiction, etc, has to be limited to anything before the 1960s, does it?

    No, of course not, but my interest in fiction after that period is very limited. As I said, if I subscribed to Planet Stories under a misapprehension about its scope, then the fault is mine, not Paizo's. Even if I wasn't mistaken, I certainly don't blame Paizo for changing the focus of the line. However, given that I prefer the earlier releases over the recent ones and have no interest in paying for yet more books by authors I don't much care for or that don't meet my expectations, I think it's time to opt out.

  32. It's a fair bet that the older the book, the less likely buyers at book chains and distributors are to pick it up. That means losing money on almost every single book you do, which is like putting a bullet in the chamber of the gun held at your temple.

    The Piers Anthony books are/were an attempt to get buyers (both at the retail and consumer level) interested in the line with a "known" name--an attempt that has worked, given how frequently I see them in stores. I read both books and enjoyed them, and feel like they fit thematically with the line just as well as virtually everything we've published.

    Given my own preferences independent of market realities, I would continue to publish 80-year-old pulp reprints forever. Indeed, we have the aforementioned Hok volume from Manly Wade Wellman already on the schedule, and more stuff is coming down the pike soon that will be more in fitting with your pulp-era expectations for the line.

    The Hugh Cook and Matthew Hughes selections are purely self-indulgent on my behalf, because they are authors I've always wanted to publish. The Cook book in particular was one of the inspirations behind me launching the line in the first place. As others have mentioned above, I believe it is well worth a read and I think it's one of the most enjoyable books we've published to date.

    Even that book is of a similar vintage to the Gary Gygax material we printed early in the line, and as others have mentioned Gary was himself a fan. I don't think a book needs to be from our grandparents' era to fit within the mission statement of our line. The Walrus & the Warwolf, for example, has been out of print for about 15 years and has NEVER been available in the United States.

    That book is also an experiment to see if thicker books have an easier time on shelves. I have a feeling some of the volumes we've done have been too slim, so it will be interesting to see what affect, if any, the girth of that book has on its sales.

    The truth of the matter is that there is not very much money, if any, in producing high quality reprints of classic material. I am willing to bet a great deal of money that our Pathfinder tie-in novels will outperform Planet Stories immediately. Indeed, the subscription numbers for the line--not yet released--are more than double those for Planet Stories. PS subs have been growing steadily since the change in format about a year ago, but there is simply not a reliable audience for this kind of material, so one must be very careful in making selections, or of course one must be willing to lose an awful lot of money.

    We'll keep tinkering with things to make sure that we can continue to deliver the kind of classic pulpy material you and I love, but it must be done carefully and deliberately.

    And frankly speaking, the more people who cancel their subscriptions (and who post long, thoughtful blogs essentially advocating that others do the same), the more likely the entire line will be cancelled in favor of publishing Yet Another Pathfinder thing.

    I'm not saying that to hold you or anyone hostage or anything. Of course, if the line is not meeting your needs or catering to your interests, it does not deserve your patronage. But reprints of ancient stories alone do not sustain a professionally published line of books like this. At least not so far.

    I suggest sticking around at least until we announce our next slate of books in a month or two. If those don't ring your bell, well, it's been a valiant effort, and I thank you for your support.

    --Erik Mona
    Paizo Publishing

  33. Erik,

    Thanks for your candor regarding the Planet Stories line and the difficulties it faces. I've always admired your willingness to talk straight about such things and this is no exception. That's why I felt I could also be honest about my disappointment in 2010's slate of Planet Stories books. To date, less than half the books I received this year as part of my subscription have been ones I'd have chosen if I had the option to pick and choose which volumes I got.

    As I said, I expect a certain percentage of the books I'll receive won't meet my expectations; that's the nature of subscriptions. I was happy to have a subscription in order to support Paizo's efforts to bring out of prints classics from the early days of fantasy and science fiction back into print. But, given that there are only three volumes this year that really fall into that category, I can't bring myself to keep buying stuff I don't want just to get the few idea, especially when I can simply drop my subscription and order individual volumes I like.

    Yes, I know that this endangers the entire Planet Stories line and I'm sorry about that. But my interests are pretty narrow as far as fiction goes and, with so many publishers putting out superb material from the early days, I have to put my money where I'm getting the most return for it.

    If the soon-to-be-announced books really are as remarkable as you say, I may reconsider my stance. Right now, though, after the two Piers Anthony books, the Cook and Hughes material, and the anthology of largely contemporary authors, I'm more than a little skeptical. I wish that weren't the case, but there it is.