SURFACE ACTION came about because Marty Greenberg was packaging a series of dos-a-dos short novels for Tor Books, pairing a classic with new work by a contemporary author. He suggested that I write a sequel to Clash By Night, written in 1943 by Henry Kuttner with input from his wife CL Moore (billing themselves as Lawrence O’Donnell). I first read Clash by Night when I was thirteen, and it’d made an enormous impact on me. I agreed.
Things got fuzzy then. I really wanted some paperwork to say exactly what I was doing and for how much money. I didn’t much care what the answers to those questions were, but I was a lawyer: I wanted the terms down on paper, especially since this was a three-party transaction. Marty is completely honest, but he isn’t a lawyer. No contract appeared.
Then things got awkward. I talked to Debbie Notkin, the Tor editor who was handling the project. Another book in the series was the classic Vintage Season, written by CL Moore alone but again using the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell. Robert Silverberg was writing the sequel. Ms Notkin made it politely clear that one O’Donnell piece was enough for the series; that she preferred Bob’s work to mine; and that anyway, Kuttner and Moore had written their own sequel to Clash By Night, the novel Fury.
Professionally (and I hope generally in life) I don’t go where I’m not wanted. I wrote the book anyway but removed direct references to Clash By Night. A new agent I was trying at the time put it up for auction. Ace (who were doing the Northworld series then) and Baen Books (my friend Jim) bid. Tom Doherty, Tor’s publisher, had heard by then about why Tor wasn’t getting the book and acted himself, making a third bidder.
I’m really uncomfortable about what happened next. Supposedly the parties didn’t know one another’s bids. The book would’ve gone to Tor, except at the last moment the Ace publisher (whom I’ve never met) stepped in and boosted the Ace bid by $5,000 over the recommendation of my friend and editor Beth Fleisher.
One reason that might have happened is that somebody had told the publisher what the Tor bid was. I personally can’t think of another reasonable possibility.
Ace got the book–which in itself was fine. I felt bad enough about the way it’d happened, though, that I wrote a different sequel to Clash By Night for Tor (and for that, see my notes on The Jungle) and sold it to Tom (myself) for half the money Ace had paid for Surface Action.
That’s a lot about the business side of the book. As for the writing–the fun part–I had a great time. Kuttner’s story was about a soldier who tries to become a civilian but realizes when the chips are down that he’ll never be happy as anything but a soldier. I turned that on its head, a civilian who thinks he wants to be a soldier, but who sees what that really means and returns to civilian life.
I consciously wrote my story in a tone and style appropriate to 1943 SF. This isn’t the tone of adult fiction today, so I turned Surface Action pretty much into a Young Adult novel with a teenaged protagonist. (If it had been published as a YA, I’d have made the few sexual innuendos less graphic.)
I’ve always loved warships. Kuttner’s story was built around the concepts of fleet action that were common between the World Wars, when aircraft were merely scouts for the fighting fleets and the real action was carried on by dreadnought battleships.
This obviously wasn’t reality by 1943, so Kuttner eliminated aircraft from the Venusian atmosphere by auctorial fiat–citing the weather. He wanted to write about battleships slugging it out; and that suited me right down to the ground, because that’s what I wanted to do also.
Golden Age writers often added poetic epigraphs to stories or chapters within longer pieces. Kuttner did this in Clash by Night, thereby introducing me to Matthew Arnold and AE Housman (the latter poet a lifelong companion as a result). I took enormous pleasure in choosing epigraphs for Surface Action.
As a matter of fact, I had a great time with every part of Surface Action except for the business side, and the business was as unpleasant as that of any solo book I’ve done. Still, even that was a learning experience–I learned never to do certain things again. I’ll call that a win too.
Surface Action. 1990, New York, NY: Ace Books. 236 p. 044136375X (pb). $3.95.
————– Reprinted in Seas of Venus. 2002, Riverdale, NY: Baen. 400 p. 0743435648 $15.00.