Friday, July 12, 2013

Steven Utley's Silurian Tales

400-Million-Year ItchIn the latter part of 2002, as an acquiring editor for Golden Gryphon Press, I was happily working away on a second collection of George Alec Effinger stories. To that end, I had contacted George's fellow writers, editors, and friends for their favorite GAE story (and once they named their favorite, I then cajoled and begged them into writing a brief introduction to said story for the collection). 1

Gardner Dozois was one of the editors whom I contacted, and he responded to my query via email on December 24, 2002. After recommending a number of Effinger stories in his email, including the pseudonymously written "O. Niemand" stories (which he did, in fact, introduce in the collection), Gardner wrote:
Cheeky as it may be of me, I've also been meaning to write to you and suggest two other worthy collections that are floating around out there and which don't seem to be able to find a home anywhere in the commercial publishing world.
The first collection Gardner recommended was for "Avram Davidson's wonderful and as yet uncollected stories about Jack Limekiller, and his adventures in an imaginary but vividly detailed Central American country drenched with magic, strange creatures, and supernatural menaces." 2

As to the second collection, Gardner went on to write:
The other collection I'd like to recommend is Steven Utley's collection of Silurian Tales, which have been appearing in venues such as ASIMOV'S, F&SF, SCI FICTION, and elsewhere over the last decade or so. This probably will never appeal to the big trade publishers, since there are no dinosaurs in it, Steve somewhat perversely having decided to take us back in time to the Silurian Age rather than the dinosaur age, when the biggest things on land are segmented worms. But [the stories] have maintained a sustained level of brilliance all these years, with many of them making one or another Best of the Year collection, and I think a collection of them would make a worthy book.
After the new year (2003), I tracked down a number of Steven Utley's Silurian Age stories in my copies of Asimov's SF and elsewhere, and was intrigued enough to contact the author. And a few months later Steven submitted a full collection of his Silurian tales.
At the time, Golden Gryphon Press was publishing eight hardcover titles per year, but unfortunately that level of production didn't last. Some months later I received an email from the publisher informing me that he wanted to reduce the number of books per year to a maximum of six titles. Given my current commitments, that meant my half of the schedule was already booked through the next two years. Consequently, were I to acquire the collection of Silurian tales, it wouldn't see publication for at least three years. I didn't feel that was right, to hold up the publication of Steven's collection for three years, when he might find another press who could publish the book sooner.

My rejection letter to Steven Utley is dated November 26, 2003, and concludes with the following paragraph:
If you’re up to it, I would be most grateful if you would keep me posted on your efforts to have the collection published. And, as I said, I would be pleased to put in a good word for the collection with another publisher, and explain why, given Golden Gryphon Press's current schedule, we're not publishing the book instead. In fact, I would like to know by whom and when the book will be published so that I may place an order myself for a copy!
Steven did keep in touch, at least for a while; I recall receiving group emails from him with links to this and that, whatever he felt might be of interest to his contacts. At some point the emails stopped, and I never did hear anything further from him regarding the publication of his Silurian tales. (Though I will admit that I hadn't been actively searching for information either.) And then early this year, on January 12 -- or maybe it was the 13th that I actually read the news -- Steven Utley passed away.

Which, of course, brought to mind our communications back in 2003 regarding the collection, and its unfortunate rejection.

In the course of everyday business, I follow a number of writers', editors', and publishers' blogs and websites, one such being Jonathan Strahan's blog Notes from Coode Street. His May 17 blog post, bearing the title "Steven Utley's Invisible Kingdoms," certainly grabbed my attention. I clicked the entry in my Feedly RSS reader. Unbeknownst to me, Australian publisher Ticonderoga Publications -- whose first book in 1997 was Steven Utley's first collection, Ghost Seas -- had published not one volume, but two volumes of Silurian Tales: The 400-Million-Year Itch in 2012, and this year's Invisible Kingdoms. I was both surprised and saddened at the same time. Surprised to learn that the publication of these two books had completely escaped me, but saddened to realize that Steven wasn't alive to see the publication of the second volume. I immediately checked out the Ticonderoga Publications website for further details; and I was pleased to learn that Gardner Dozois, who had recommended the collection to me a decade ago, had written the introduction to volume 1. I then placed an order for both volumes (as I said that I would in that rejection letter) through Amazon.

As Gardner Dozois notes at the beginning of his introduction, the first Silurian tale, "There and Then," was published in the November 1993 issue of Asimov's SF, and in the nineteen years since, nearly forty Silurian tales have been published across a wide range of both print and online venues. Gardner believes that Steven's Silurian tales may just be "one of the longest-running, continuously published series in modern science fiction."

And with the most kind permission of Gardner Dozois, here are some (albeit lengthy) excerpts from the introduction to The 400-Million-Year Itch. I hope that, as I did, you'll be adding at least one, if not both, of these volumes to your bookstore shopping cart.

The Silurian Tales take us through an experimental space/time warp generated by only partially understood high-tech means and deep into the prehistoric past, where, millions and millions of years ago, a scientific research station is established, the scientists eventually bringing a U.S. Navy destroyer through the warp to act as a floating center of operations. A classic time-travel scenario. Almost any other SF writer who ever lived, almost any other SF writer working today, given this scenario as a starting point, would have taken their protagonists back to the age of the dinosaurs. [Dinosaur] stories almost write themselves....

Instead, almost perversely, Steven Utley takes us and his protagonists back to the Silurian Age, "The Age of the Mud and Slime," in the title of one of his stories, one of the most boring of all prehistoric eras in terms of the possibilities for action-adventure stories it provides. No dinosaurs, which would not evolve until hundreds of millions of years later. No dinosaurs, in fact—no large, land-dwelling creatures of any kind, not even trees or bushes, as only the most primitive sorts of plant and animal life, mosses and fungi, and insects such as spiders and centipedes, had as yet colonized the land, spreading a thin border strip of life along the shores of oceans and streams and lakes. Inland, all else is desolate and barren. Brackish swamps, desert, bare rock, devoid of life of any kind. Even the sea, where the first bony fishes are just starting to develop, provides no monster worse than giant 2.5 meter-long sea scorpions....

Choosing such a landscape as the setting for time-travel stories is a move of breathtaking audacity, eliminating at a stroke most of the kinds of materials from which such stories are usually fashioned....

There's only the bleak landscape of the Silurian Age, and the peculiarities and paradoxes and intricate workings of time-travel itself, and, set against that plain, pure, desolate background, the characters, who are free to interact in the most subtle and movingly human of ways with little else to distract the reader from them.

Using only these limited means, like a boxer binding one arm behind his back before climbing into the ring, Utley has managed to produce some of the most complex, adult, and entertaining of modern science fiction stories....

If you haven't encountered the Silurian Tales before, I envy you the experience. If you have, you're probably already reading them, and not bothering with these words of mine at all.

Gardner Dozois
September 2012

Notes and Footnotes

Special thanks, too, to Russell B. Farr, publisher of Ticonderoga Publications for permission to excerpt Gardner Dozois's introduction in The 400-Million-Year Itch.

1. The GAE collection to which I refer is George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth, which I wrote about extensively on May 12, 2009, and then reposted on January 12, 2013, in honor of GAE's 66th birthday. George Alec Effinger passed away in his sleep on April 27, 2002.

2. Since the holidays were upon us at the time Gardner's email arrived, I didn't begin to pursue his two collection suggestions until after the New Year. I quickly learned that Henry Wessells and the Avram Davidson Society were already hard at work on a Limekiller collection, which was published later that year by Old Earth Books. (And I do, in fact, have a copy of Limekiller in my library.)

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