THE SHARP END is a book many people tell me is one of their favorites; they’re generally surprised to learn I don’t have a high opinion of it myself. I’ve given various reasons for my ill feelings, all of them true to a degree; but now, forcing myself to look at the situation from the safe distance of a decade, I’m ready to be honest.
The early ’90s were a difficult period for me. I’d been a full-time freelance writer since 1981. I’d done all right financially from the beginning and from the mid-’80s on had done very well indeed. We’d bought a tract of land in the country and my wife was becoming increasingly demanding that we should start to build a (much larger) house on it. She was quite right: it was time. We arranged with an excellent and utterly trustworthy architect and contractor to begin work.
I was terrified to an irrational degree. Our son was in a private college, and I was very well aware that a freelance writer is in an extremely chancy business. I’d dealt with the uncertainty by buying nothing on time: if I couldn’t pay cash, I waited. This understandably created stress at home, since people with much lower incomes were (for example) buying new cars.
I was, I repeat, irrational on the subject; though I think many people take–and certainly took, fifteen years ago–far too much for granted. My need for a completely controlled environment is in part a reaction to Vietnam, which put an emotional loading on matters which others mostly saw from my reactions alone.
When I was firmly committed to building the new house, the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed. I was just as happy about that as anybody else, but one of the obvious consequences was that the US military would be downsized. Much of my income depended on Military SF, a subgenre which would be negatively impacted by the fact that there would be a million fewer young men and women with an interest in the military and time in barracks to read.
I say ‘obvious’ because it certainly was obvious to me, but I couldn’t get anybody else to listen. I wrote space operas, in no sense Military SF, and saw them published with “The King of Military Science Fiction!” on the cover. And sure enough, Military SF took a serious hit. (I’m sure Cassandra would’ve agreed with me that there’s no satisfaction in saying, “I told you so!” when your world is burning down around you.)
I had three publishers at the time: Tor, Ace, and Baen. My (wonderful) editor at Ace had left publishing. This had a bad result for my books there because though my new editor was a friend and very able, she was also a VP of Putnams, the parent corporation, and simply didn’t have the time to work with individual titles. I learned that my next Ace book wouldn’t be published for two years after I’d turned it in. There was going to be a considerable period in which no book of mine appeared.
I noted earlier in this essay that Nam was part of my problem. On the credit side, it–or at least the fact I served with the Blackhorse–taught me to react to bad situations instead of waiting for them to roll over me. I knew Jim Baen could bring a book out quickly, so I called him and arranged to do one to plug into the gap.
The problem was that Jim wanted something military. It struck me that I could satisfy him by having soldiers as my viewpoint characters while actually writing an action/adventure story. I’d use a six-man team assessing a gangster-ruled planet for potential mercenary deployment. The book could be honestly marketed as adventure if Jim came around to my way of thinking later. (He didn’t.)
I stole the plot from Dashiell Hammett. His first novel, Red Harvest, has always been a favorite of mine (second only to The Glass Key).
When in 1962 I saw A Fistful of Dollars, the first spaghetti western, I assumed it’d been lifted from Red Harvest with the addition of an important scene from The Glass Key. I later learned that that Leone, the director, had copied Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and that it was Kurosawa who’d cribbed it from Hammett. I like both movies very much, however movie people are not only thieves (which doesn’t bother me) but litigious thieves. With that in mind I wish to emphasize that the entire plot of The Sharp End came from Dashiell Hammett, not from Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone.
I adapted the plot and was proceeding happily with an 80,000 word paperback original when Jim called and told me he’d be doing the book as a hardcover. I wasn’t one of the writers who demanded the prestige of hardcover publication. I made my money from mass-market paperbacks, and status isn’t a major concern of mine. A hardcover needed more bulk than a paperback (even in the early ’90s), but it was too late to add an additional 20-30K into the plot proper. Furthermore, the change would delay publication, the whole reason I was doing the book in the first place.
Man proposes, God disposes; and once more, thank God for Blackhorse training. I wrote introductory scenes giving the background of the six main characters, bringing the total wordage to 109,000–just what I’d been aiming at.
All six of my central characters are trying to redeem themselves. One of them, Johann Vierziger, is what Hammer’s dead assassin and bodyguard, Joachim Steuben, might’ve been if he were returned to the waking world to find what in his case is redemption of a particularly muscular kind.
Many readers have asked me how that could happen. I don’t have an answer or at least not a rational answer. I hope that everyone who’s looking for redemption finds it somewhere, though; whether or not we can find a rational basis for it.
Jim pushed his sales force hard enough to get out a lot of copies of The Sharp End; more than half of them came back. Jim told me–volunteered to me with some irritation–that the book had failed in hardcover and that Military SF was in serious trouble. Neither of those things was news to me.
Things got better. My son graduated. I paid off the new house. I began writing epic fantasy successfully with covers that didn’t refer to Military SF. And for that matter, Military SF picked up to previous levels for me, because writers who’d come into the subgenre because it was booming were sifted out of the marketplace when it crashed.
The paperback of The Sharp End did fine on initial release and continues to bring in money every royalty period. It’s a good book, as it should be when I used a master like Dashiell Hammett for my model.
But the text itself is only a small part of what goes through my mind when I think about a book, and this book comes with a lot of baggage.
The Sharp End. Hammer’s Slammers Series. 1993, Riverdale, NY: Baen. 377 p. 0671721925. $20.00.
————– “The Sharp End (Extract)” Amazing, October 1993.
————– 1994, Riverdale, NY: Baen. 377 p. 0671876325 (pb). $5.99.
————– The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, v.3. 2007, San Francisco, CA: Night Shade Books.
————– The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, v.3. 2010, Riverdale, NY: Baen.
————– (audiobook), Audible.com, 2011