It's amazing what we forget.
Modern Science Fiction owes a tremendous debt to the generation of pioneers who wrote for the explosion of digest SF and Fantasy magazines that hit the newsstands in the forties and fifties. Today, most SF fans can name a few of these writers—
Mind you, they might be a little easier to remember if we knew that they all happened to be one man, one brilliant if nearly forgotten writer named Randall Garrett.
Those who still remember Garrett probably remember just one of his characters: Lord Darcy, a detective who solved impossible crimes in a world which had discovered the laws of magic instead of those of science. But these stories reflect just a small portion of his work—
Nonetheless, in his day Garrett was hailed by fans, critics and other authors as one of the best SF writers of his generation. He wrote everything from Asimovian robot mysteries and epic fantasy to parody, poetry and even a biography of Pope John XXIII. He wrote more than 130 short stories under a wild variety of pseudonyms, published at least 22 books and collaborated with such familiar SF and Fantasy writers as Laurence M. Janifer, Michael Kurland, Lin Carter, Avram Davidson and, most significantly, Robert Silverberg. All of his work overflows with his ebullient good humor, his love of puns and word play and constant references to other works that he loved.
Randall's full name was Gordon Randall Phillip David Garrett: he put together many of his most common aliases from that mess of names. Any personal description of Randall Garrett from his many friends, both within and without the SF community, always ends up giving the impression of something wild, shaggy and irresistibly rowdy. He drank too much, smoked too much and pursued any reasonably attractive woman within reach (Marion Zimmer Bradley claims that his standard greeting to a woman he hadn't met before was "Hi, I'm Randall. Let's fuck." In her case, however, he said, "Coito, ergo sum"—
Somehow, the most remarkable stories about him have to do with his absurd exploits at fan conventions, from a broadsword fight with Poul Anderson, to the time he and Isaac Asimov dressed up as Tweedledum and Tweedledee—
Catholicism might seem at odds with the rest of his character, but Garrett was a deeply religious man, frequently attending Anglican services after some of his more notorious excesses. Robert Silverberg described him as "an interesting mix of saint and sinner, although the consensus is that there's rather more sinner than saint in him." This mixture seems strange in our age; although, to those who've read some of the great medieval works of literature (such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or The Decameron) he might almost have walked out of those pages full of men who sinned mightily but repented even more mightily. For years he talked about becoming a priest, particularly during the later part of the sixties, when he gave up writing several times. Ultimately, Garrett shocked his friends by taking orders in the Old Catholic Church.
However, it should noted that the Old Catholics allow married clergy. A celibate Randall Garrett is just a little too hard to imagine.
Garrett published his first short story, "Probability Zero: The Absence Of Heat," in Astounding Science Fiction in June of 1944, when he was only 162. He soon mastered the art of selling stories to the SF magazines, publishing some 20 over the next decade and building personal relationships with many of his editors and publishers.
It was one of these early stories, "The Hunting Lodge" (1954), that first caught the attention of his readers: in 1982, Robert Silverberg noted that it had rarely been out of print since that first publication. In it, a spy penetrates the defenses of the hunting lodge owned by an immortal Senator and assassinates him. But that's where the story really begins, because the lodge's automated defense system comes to life as the Senator dies, and starts hunting the assassin, using all the public service robots in the city. It is a marvelous piece of writing—
Unfortunately, Garrett eventually found himself unable to finish many of his stories, due to a combination of personal problems and his lack of writing discipline. That changed in 1955, when he moved next door to Robert Silverberg. They found that they complemented each other's weaknesses: unlike Silverberg, Garrett had a solid understanding of both plot structure and the physical sciences (thanks to his degree in Chemical Engineering), while Silverberg possessed a liberal arts background that helped shore up Garrett's rough style and difficulty with complex characters. Silverberg also had a firm sense of discipline that kept Garrett writing.
Garrett and Silverberg churned out an enormous number of stories over the next two years, forming a literary assembly line that took advantage of their very different habits: Silverberg was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, and when Garrett actually did work—
The market that proved most difficult for Garrett and Silverberg to conquer was John W. Campbell's Astounding. In August of 1955, they put together a Frankenstein's monster of a proposal. They pitched a serialization that mashed up all of Campbell's favorite themes into a story about how the wise and advanced Earthmen arrive at an alien planet and meddle with its culture to bring them up to the much higher level of Earth.
Campbell stunned them when he told them that they'd gotten it all wrong: it should be told not from the viewpoint not of the heroic Earthmen, but rather that of the aliens. They had considered such an idea, but turned it down. They couldn't imagine Campbell buying it. He gave them some suggestions, including the use of a school of theology as the Earthmen's tool for changing the alien culture, rearranged their alien solar system to fit his idea of the story, and sent them off to write not a serialized novel, but a series of linked novelettes. Rather than publish them under the awkward credit "by Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg," Campbell insisted they work under a pseudonym that combined their first names: "Robert Randall." Today, we know these stories as The Shrouded Planet3.
When they gave Campbell their third novelette, Garrett and Silverberg suggested that they produce one final installment to finish the story. Instead, he told them to write exactly what they'd wanted in the first place, a three-part serialized novel, The Dawning Light, which would complete the storyline.
The Bel-rogas stories, as they are usually called (after the school of theology that plays such an important part in the story), proved very successful, so much so that in 1957, Gnome Press, which specialized in limited-edition Science Fiction hardcovers and had published works by some of the best SF writers of the era, asked if they could reprint them. Robert and Randall agreed, expecting to see royalties flowing in for years to come. Instead, the novels quickly went out of print and were not re-released until the early eighties. The original books are now extremely rare and highly treasured by collectors.
The same year the Gnome press editions came out, Randall and Robert wrote the first part of a third Bel-rogas series, "All The King's Horses," but never wrote any further installments.
The Bel-rogas stories have long been considered classics of the genre. The stories themselves are admirably subtle: it is not until late in the second novel that we can really see the underlying realities behind the outward events. The more episodic format of The Shrouded Planet bears a strong resemblance to the first volume of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, which was also written as a series of separate stories.
The Garrett/Silverberg collaboration would continue sporadically for a few more years, only to end in the early sixties when the two men's lives carried them in different directions. By this time, Garrett had become one of the mainstays of Astounding, sometimes publishing several stories in the same issue, often collaborating with a number of other SF writers. It was in this period that he launched himself into the book market with two solo novels and another four with Laurence M. Janifer.
For the first of these, Pagan Passions, Janifer hid behind the alias of Larry M. Harris. Published as a novel, Pagan Passions is only 40,000 words long, making it more of a long novelette than a novel. It is also one of Randall Garrett's most obscure books4. The bibliographies included in the hardcover novels Garrett published just a few years later make no mention of Pagan Passions, nor is it mentioned in any of Garrett's books at the time of his later revival. It sounds decidedly ephemeral from what little information the e-book versions give: Pagan Passions was a paperback original, but not from one of the larger companies like Pyramid, Ace or Bantam. Instead, it was a "Galaxy Novel," "selected by the editors of Galaxy magazine" and published in "sturdy" paperback by Beacon Press. Were these Galaxy Novels sold on the newsstand, one wonders, or were they something that had to be ordered direct from the magazine, like those digest-sized "books" published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine around the same time? The paperback original publishers of that era made their books to be thrown away and forgotten even before they were in the garbage can. Pagan Passions sounds more disposable than most. This, however, did not stop Randall from creating one of his wildest alternate worlds.
The Greek gods returned to Earth in the fifties. They restructured our world, eliminating (most) war, hunger, poverty and disease, and reestablished their worship on Earth. Now, the New York Public Library is the temple of Athena, the Empire State Building the temple of Zeus, and the followers of Dionysus hold their orgies in Central Park.
Pagan Passions follows the exploits of William Forrester through this bizarre fantasy world. He is a worshiper of Athena who teaches Introductory History at Columbia University but finds himself involved in an increasingly wild series of events that end with him being made Dionysus' official stand-in. However, it is only when he's made a god that things start to make sense.
The novel is blissfully absurd, painting a wacky future based on a rather skewed version of Greek religion. Yet underneath it all is a science fictional notion of how such beings could really exist. Throw in a touch (well, rather a lot, really) of the typically ecstatic—
It was another three years before Garrett had another book published, but the two years that followed 1962 proved to be a very good years for Garrett. He would release six novels and a biography under three different names.
Unwise Child (reprinted in the eighties under the melodramatic title Starship Death) is perhaps Garrett's finest work of pure science fiction. In this detective story, Garrett takes the Asimovian robot story places where Isaac himself would have feared to tread:
The government hires power designer Michael Raphael Gabriel (a.k.a. Mike the Angel) to design an extremely odd spaceship around a mysterious cargo. He realizes that there is only one thing that matches the cargo's specified density: a massive positronic brain. He soon finds himself on board this new ship for its one and only flight.
But strange things start happening almost as soon as he is aboard. Someone is murdered and the robotic extension of this massive brain appears to have broken the First Law of Robotics. Perhaps the most striking science fictional idea in the book (although some might shy away from calling it that)—
Garrett used his Darrel T. Langart pseudonym (an anagram of Randall Garrett) for Anything You Can Do..., an expansion of a novelette he wrote for Analog6.
Forced down by the damage caused by a solar flare, the Nipe, an extremely nonhuman alien, crashes his ship on Earth. Hoping to contact intelligent, civilized life (but hampered by the loss of his translator), he takes up residence in the sewers of New York City, killing all the pesky two-legged creatures who keep stumbling across him. However, he makes sure that any intelligent beings he does encounter will know he is civilized by completing his culture's ritual to honor those he has bested in combat: eating their bodies. He forces himself to do this even though it disgusts him.
The U.S. government knows the Nipe is down there, but they have a serious problem: how do you keep this lethally fast creature with incredible reflexes from killing anyone they send down there to talk to it?
Anything You Can Do... is solid, entertaining and deftly written, with touches of sly humor and several very clever plot twists. It leaves you wishing that Garrett had written more novels. Many more.In nineteen-fourteen, it was enemy aliens
In nineteen-thirty, it was Wobblies
In nineteen-fifty-seven, it was fellow-travelers.
And in nineteen-seventy-one, Kenneth J. Malone rolled out of bed wondering what the hell it was going to be now.
One thing, he told himself, was absolutely certain: it was going to be terrible. It always was. (Brain Twister, 1962)
Most SF fans probably didn't notice that Mark Phillips' Kenneth J. Malone was a dead ringer for the drunken Chicago lawyer hero John J. Malone, from Craig Rice's wild, screwball detective stories.
Craig Rice7 seems an inspired choice for a Randall Garrett pastiche as her sense of humor (not to mention her personal history of drunken sprees and wild escapades) has a definite affinity with that of Garrett's. Randall and Laurence M. Janifer (here, hiding behind a combination of their middle names) catch her narrative voice almost perfectly within a series that, fittingly, is an SF take on the screwball mystery.
Malone works for the FBI and his latest case sends him off in search of a spy who is an impossibility: a stable telepath. After all, all telepaths become imbeciles. Instead, he finds "Miss Thompson," who insists she is immortal and just happens to be Queen Elizabeth I of England. In Malone's opinion, she's battier than a "cathedral spire" but before he knows what is happening, he finds himself an agent of "The Queen's Own FBI," investigating cars that drive themselves and a mysterious mental influence that seems to have affected dozens of important government officials.
The Malone stories started as a series of serialized short novels in Astounding Science Fiction ("That Sweet Little Old Lady," "Out Like A Light" and "Occasion For Disaster"), but Garrett and Janifer expanded them for Pyramid, which published them in paperback as Brain Twister (1962), The Impossibles and Supermind (both in 1963). Like Craig Rice's novels, they carry the reader madly through a wacky series of events, while somehow spinning a successful mystery along with the comedy. It is a beautiful balancing act. The books are a joy to read, particularly if you can find the originals with their extravagant Findlay-esque cover art by John Schoenherr and heady odor of decaying paper.
A year later, Randall invented his most famous character. Unfortunately, Lord Darcy would not escape the confines of Analog and find his way to a larger audience for many years—
The legend (which has been told several different ways) is that Darcy came about as the result of a bet. Before Isaac Asimov successfully combined science fiction with the detective story, most people thought that writing a SF mystery that played fair with the audience was impossible: the detective could just pull out some gadget that would point out the villain at the push of a button, or even worse, the murderer might use such an unguessable gimmick to commit his crime
When Asimov argued that it would be impossible to write a "fair-play" detective story set in a world ruled by magic for the very same reasons, Garrett immediately set out to prove him wrong.
He set his tales in an alternate present in which Richard the Lionhearted survived the Crusades and his Plantagenet descendant now rules both England and France. It is a world where the sciences are virtually unknown but St. Hilary of Walsingham discovered the laws of magic in the 13th century, and the Angevin Empire, as it is known, is mired in a continuing cold war with the Polish empire.
In Garrett's alternate world there is nothing arbitrary or random about the laws of magic. They are as rigid and unforgiving as the laws of physics are in our world. Essentially, this "magic" is a form of psychic power which operates under strict limitations, although these limits have nothing in common with those of the physical sciences. It requires as much research and skill for Garret's magicians to develop a new magical device as it would to invent a new machine in our world. When Lord Darcy's assistant and Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Master Sean O'Lochlainn, tells him that magic could not be (or was not) involved in a particular crime, there can be no doubt that this is true.
This scientific approach to magic is what makes them work as detective stories. Randall Garrett loved to throw interesting quirks into his magical world (such as his magical refrigerator, which has a stasis spell cast on its interior so that time will not pass on anything inside) but he never allowed these to overwhelm his stories.
Lord Darcy serves as the Duke of Normandy's Chief Investigator. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, although in many respects he seems more like the swashbuckling heroes of John Dickson Carr's historical detective novels. Darcy has no magical talent, but has a keen deductive mind and a solid understanding of the laws of magic. His position often brings political intrigue and espionage to his attention, but most of his cases involve seemingly impossible crimes, often taking place in rooms not merely locked but sealed by magic.
Darcy first appeared in a novelette entitled "The Eyes Have It," in the January 1964 issue of Analog. Garrett wrote two more long stories about Darcy and then, in 1966, began the serialization of his greatest novel, Too Many Magicians.
An important sorcerer gets murdered in a magically protected room at a magicians' conference. The devious Marquis of London blames the crime on Sean O'Lochlainn, which he knows will force Darcy to get involved, even though the case is outside his jurisdiction (the Marquis, a brilliant deductive thinker, is an immense and lazy man who spends his time raising rare herbs and uses his assistant Lord Bontriomphe as his legman to solve crimes. Mystery fans might recognize him as a certain famous New York private detective.). Darcy soon learns that he must find the murderer quickly because the victim was one of the inventors of a new British magical weapon.
Perhaps the novel's nicest touch is that the solution is actually quite simple, but no one sees it because they fail to see a serious loophole in the room's magical protection.
After Too Many Magicians came a long silence. Lord Darcy did not reappear again until 1973—
But when Randall Garrett did return, he launched into one of the most productive periods of his career, writing another seven stories about Darcy between 1973 and 1979.
In the interim, he'd reformed his life, cut his drinking considerably and married one of his fans: Vicki Ann Heydron9. She became his collaborator on many of his later projects; it surprised him when he learned that they could write together seamlessly, their styles merging indistinguishably.
Too Many Magicians finally made its long delayed book debut in 1979 when Ace published a paperback edition. That same year, Ace released Murder And Magic, which collected the first four novelettes. In 1981, they reprinted the next four as Lord Darcy Investigates.
But before that volume came out, Randall Garrett's days of writing ended. In July of 1979, he contracted encephalitis. He never recovered. Despite early hopes that he would soon return to his writing, the disease destroyed his memory. He would eventually lapse into a coma, and he died in 1987.
More books were published after illness ended his writing than at any time in his career.
The first, in 1980, was a beautiful illustrated anthology put together by some of his friends. It collected some of his best parodies and pastiches under a punning title Randall would have loved: Takeoff! It collected stories from every part of his career, including some of his verse parodies, a wild riff on H.P. Lovecraft ("The Horror Out of Time") and "Masters of the Metropolis" (with Lin Carter), which uses Hugo Gernsback's pedantic, gee-whiz attitude toward the future to describe the present.
A sequel, entitled Takeoff, Too, followed in 1987, this time broadening the focus to include several of his best comic stories that did not parody specific works, although one of the best (and most serious) stories in the collection borrows the alien world James Blish envisioned in his novel A Case Of Conscience, and a blackly comic vampire detective story features a wolfish version of Anthony Boucher's detective, Fergus O'Breen.
In the early eighties, Pocket Books created a series of paperback anthologies which collected "The Best of" a number of famous SF authors (including Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Damon Knight). Robert Silverberg edited The Best Of Randall Garrett (1982), assembling a collection of personal reminiscences from Garrett's friends in the SF community as well as a selection of Randall's work that included his breakthrough story "The Hunting Lodge," and two Lord Darcy stories, including the previously uncollected "The Spell of War." This story eschews the more glamorous trappings of the other Darcy mysteries, in favor of the muddy trenches of the alternate magical version of World War II. While fighting the Poles, young Lieutenant Darcy discovers that one of the deaths on the battlefield may not be what it seems.
But the sudden boom in Randall Garrett books included more than these few short story collections. In 1981, Bantam books launched the most ambitious project Garrett ever conceived: The Gandalara Cycle.
Sixty-year-old Ricardo Carillo, a terminally ill professor of Romance languages, is hit by a falling meteor while on a cruise in the Mediterranean. He wakes up in the desert on an unfamiliar world, where he has taken over the body of the Swordsman Markassat. He finds that he shares a telepathic link with Markassat's mount Keeshah, a Sha'um, or giant cat similar to a sabertooth tiger. He also learns that he is a suspect in the theft of the Ra'ira, an immensely valuable gem linked to the history of his new home. Renamed Rikardon, he sets out on a quest to recover the jewel, which will eventually carry him across Gandalara. Along the way he aids Tarani, the true heir to the throne of Eddarta, and ultimately learns his new land's strange secret.
The cycle consists of seven novels: The Steel of Raithskar, The Glass of Dyskornis, The Bronze of Eddarta, The Well of Darkness, Return to Eddarta, The Search for Ka and The River Wall. And once again, as in Lord Darcy's alternate world, Garrett brings a hint of science fiction into the fantasy.
Before his illness, Garrett created a broad outline for the series with Vicki's help and had almost finished the draft of the first novel. Vicki then wrote the remaining novels, based on his outline. She considered the final book to be most uniquely hers, probably because Randall's outline provided far less detail for the series' conclusion.
However, even the first of these, The Steel of Raithskar, lacks Garrett's usual finesse. Once again, the story involves a locked-room crime, but this solution invokes secret mental powers, although the story does nothing to establish their existence ahead of time. This is precisely the sort of magical shortcut solution that so many people believed would ruin any fantasy or SF detective story. Garrett had a tremendous gift for crafting mystery stories with stunning and unexpected solutions. It seems sad that the last novel he wrote should end on such an ultimately unsatisfying note.
Lord Darcy, however, returned for a final bow... more or less. He appeared in two new paperback pastiches from Ace: Ten Little Wizards (1988) and A Study In Sorcery (1989). Written by Randall's one-time collaborator, Michael Kurland, they explore interesting new corners of Darcy's alternate world (including an Aztec pyramid) but never come close to capturing the ingenuity and charm of the originals. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is Kurland's failure to master the difficult art of the impossible crime. Kurland obviously hadn't read enough John Dickson Carr—
In the early nineties, most of Garrett's books enjoyed a short time in print. Now, with the advent of print-on-demand and e-book technologies, many of Randall Garrett's books are available once again.
In 2002, a new version of Lord Darcy (an omnibus collection of Garrett's three Darcy books) came out, including two additional Darcy stories, "The Spell of War" and the previously uncollected "The Bitter End." British publisher Echo Library has reprinted several Randall Garrett paperbacks, including a solo reprint of a surprisingly grim novelette called "The Highest Treason."
But the real boom comes from the world of e-books (which would have pleased Randall enormously). Amazon sells both small anthologies and individual stories for use on its Kindle reader. But this trickle of new material seems trivial compared to Project Gutenberg's awe-inspiring Randall Garrett collection10. It includes both of his solo novels from the sixties: Unwise Child and Anything You Can Do...; the ultra-rare paperback original Pagan Passions; the original serialized versions of the "Queen's Own FBI" stories and more than thirty other short stories, all available for free. Many of the stories currently on Project Gutenberg have appeared within the last two years, which gives us every reason to hope that many more will follow. They only have about a hundred more to go...
Reviewing Garrett's career, it isn't hard to see what brought about his current obscurity. Randall Garrett simply didn't write many novels. Only a few SF writers managed to publish short story collections in those days; most of those who did either repackaged their stories as a "novel" (as both Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov did) or published quite a few novels first. The publication of Too Many Magicians and The Gandalara Cycle brought about the renewed interest in Garrett's work that led to his many reprints of the eighties and early nineties, as well as the pair of new Lord Darcy novels.
But changes in the publishing industry worked against his legacy. Increased consolidation within the bookstore chains, inflationary pressures and changes in IRS accounting practices pushed publishers to unload all their excess stock quickly, relegating thousands of lesser-known works to accelerated obscurity.
Contrary to these factors, however, consider the rise of the e-book. The medium of the e-book is far better suited to short stories than to novels, thanks to the notoriously short attention span of the average Web surfer. Moreover, there is the advantage in both accounting and logistics: it does not take much storage space to post vast numbers of stories on the Web. Reprinting all or most of Randall's stories is simply a matter of time (although the fact that all these stories have now entered public domain may be one of the major factor driving Garrett's revival). Project Gutenberg's volunteers will undoubtedly continue collecting stories from the crumbling pages of the old SF magazines. They may even uncover a few unsuspected treasures, long forgotten and hiding behind some absurd, previously unknown pseudonym. There is no reason for them to stop as long as someone still has a few old copies of Analog around, or as long as Randall still has a few loyal readers willing to transcribe his stories.
The rediscovery of these lost stories may not lead to an explosion of new Garrett books in print, but it certainly brings the best of his work back to a wide audience, stories which may never have been reprinted since their one and only appearance on cheap pulpwood paper. These e-books ensure that readers will remember his work at least a little longer. They will have an opportunity to encounter that sly sense of humor, those brilliant mystery and detective problems and that almost unmatched ability to work complex scientific principles into exciting stories.
No, I don't think he'll be forgotten just yet. Not while people still laugh, gasp in awe—
A Randall Garrett Checklist
As Robert Randall, with Robert Silverberg:
- The Shrouded Planet (1957)
- The Dawning Light (1959)
With "Larry M. Harris" (Laurence M. Janifer):
- Pagan Passions (1959)
As Mark Phillips, with Laurence M. Janifer:
- Brain Twister (1962)
- The Impossibles (1963)
- Supermind (1963)
As Darrel T. Langart:
- Anything You Can Do... (1963)
As Randall Garrett:
- Unwise Child (1962)
- The Highest Treason (2008) (N.B: book publication of a novelette first published in 1961)
Lord Darcy Stories:
- Too Many Magicians (1979)
- Murder And Magic (1979)
- Lord Darcy Investigates (1981)
- Lord Darcy (second edition) (2002)
Short Story Collections:
- Takeoff! (1980)
- The Best of Randall Garrett (1982)
- Takeoff, Too (1987)
E-Book Anthologies (N.B: partial listing)
- Randall Garrett Omnibus (2008)
- Randall Garrett Reader (2008)
- Short Stories of Randall Garrett (2008)
With Vicki Ann Heydron:
- The Gandalara Cycle:
- The Steel of Raithskar (1981)
- The Glass of Dyskornis (1982)
- The Bronze of Eddarta (1983)
- The Well of Darkness (1983)
- Return to Eddarta (1984)
- The Search for Ka (1984)
- The River Wall (1986)
- Pope John XXIII: Pastoral Prince (1962)
Lord Darcy Pastiches by Michael Kurland:
- Ten Little Wizards (1988)
- A Study In Sorcery (1989)