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by Rick Klaw

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Science Fiction Masterworks
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I Books
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Subterranean Press
Kim Newman
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The People of the Black Circle
The Hour of the Dragon
Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl and Madouc
Mistress of Mistresses
The Worm Ouroboros
A Voyage to Arcturus
The Best of Walter Miller, Jr.
A Voyage to Arcturus
Zenna Henderson
Tim Powers

Making the Old New Again

Editor's Note: Click on covers for a larger version, where applicable.

The re-envisioning of "classics" is a problem in any medium. The present and future are built upon the past which must be honored and remembered. With each successive generation, it becomes increasingly difficult to attract new fans to something that was produced long ago. There is always something new and shiny to catch the eye. What is old must be made new again without losing the very thing that makes the idea exciting and enjoyable.

Jazz and blues music has been repackaged successfully for decades. Recently, I've discovered the music of legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. One of the early pioneers of bebop (some say the creator), Gillespie helped to pave the way for the modern musician. He was one of the first musicians to be defined as "cool" or "hip." Gillespie merchandised himself with a line of bop clothes, bop glasses, bop hats, and more. My recent fascination with Gillespie comes from The Best of Odyssey 1945-1952 album. The packaging in cool black with a silver duo-tone Gillespie playing his horn on the cover attracted me immediately. I have heard his name my entire life, but I wasn't familiar with his music. Thanks to extensive liner notes and an incredible sampling of his music, I am now. Gillespie's belief that a musician does not have to sacrifice his talent to become popular is still evident in his work to this day. The music is flawless.

A similar thing is happening with Robert E. Howard and his most popular creation Conan. Late last year, Del Rey released The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. This magnificent trade paperback, originally published in 2002 as limited edition hardcover by Wandering Star, contains lavish illustrations by Mark Schultz, informative story notes, an insightful introduction by Robert E. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet, an original map of the world of Conan drawn by the author, and of course the stories themselves. Most of us have never read these versions of the tales. A majority of the previous collections of Howard's Conan works contained tales altered by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp modified large chunks of the stories to make everything consistent, and even went as far as taking some of Howard's non-Conan stories and changing the characters and setting to make them Conan tales! This collection reprints the unadulterated works pretty much as they first appeared. The book also presents the stories in the order they were written. This book is no longer just a book. It's an experience. I had read some of the Howard Conan1 stories as a teenager and enjoyed the hell out of them. Howard showed me that the reason I didn't like Tolkien had nothing to do with fantasy fiction in general, but rather with the type of fantasy fiction. When most people think of sword & sorcery tales, a quest comes to mind. That is not Howard's way. For example, the first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," features Conan the King and the plot to assassinate him. When the armed men show up to kill him, the aging barbarian dispatches them with a lot of action and bloodshed. Throw in an elder god and a mad wizard and you've got one hell of a tale. The story works because Howard was a gifted action writer. When I edit, I can always tell someone who has crafted a fight scene without having read Howard.2 His prose sucks you in and refuses to let go. Oh sure, there are flaws in his writing. His women tend to be two-dimensional, and a few of the stories seem like he was only writing to collect a paycheck. All this is forgivable just for the sheer beauty of the action. Luckily for us, there is always plenty of that. It's like Robert E. Howard invented the action film, but on paper.

Blue World
Ralph 124C 41+
The Purple Cloud
The Urth of the New Sun
Damnation Alley
C.M. Kornbluth
Cordwainer Smith
James Schmitz
Thanks to a confluence of The Lord of the Rings fervor, Dark Horse's relaunch of the moribund Conan comics, the upcoming Howard centenary, and an affordable, beautifully packaged book, Del Rey has struck gold with The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. They've gone to press three times and sales continue to be brisk. There are even rumors of a new film.

Del Rey is far from the only company successfully repackaging classics for contemporary readers. In Great Britain and Canada, Gollancz has created both Fantasy and Science Fiction Masterworks lines. The affordable books are definitive editions of the works, featuring beautiful covers, often using classical paintings. The single biggest flaw of the Gollancz line is lack of context. None of the volumes contain introductions or even explanations of why these books are included in the Masterworks series. With works from Jack Vance, E.R. Eddison, Howard, David Lindsay (a fine edition of A Voyage to Arcturus), H.G. Wells, Ursula K. Le Guin and others, apparently the line is selling well. Sadly, these books are not readily available in the United States.

Ironically, Gollancz also publishes a Collectors' Edition line of classic works. While some of these books are excellent choices for reprinting (especially Vance's Blue World, The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith), this may be the single ugliest line of books ever produced. Every cover is bright yellow, often without any art but the typeface. The good news is that they are affordable and available in the U.K., Canada and the United States.

In the US, The University of Nebraska's Bison imprint and Tor's Orb both attempt to do what Gollancz does in England, though no where near as completely. The Bison books tend to be more obscure classics such as lesser Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells novels, Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, and others. The graphic quality of the books varies greatly, but all the volumes have introductions by well known writers in the field. Bison should be applauded for publishing the only current U.S. version of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus. Sadly, their version is very ugly.

The Orb books are a whole other matter. They usually have striking covers and excellent graphic design. Orb brought back into print some seminal works by Richard Matheson, Charles de Lint, Gene Wolfe, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Andre Norton and others. It is worth noting that the Orb books is a classic reprint line of authors currently publishing new books under the Tor banner.

Both Baen and Overlook reprint classic science fiction with some success. I'm thankful to Baen for bringing great writers like Keith Laumer and Randall Garrett back into print, but do all the editions have to be so unappealing? Unlike the Orb and Masterwork editions, which bring some class and decorum to what many wrongfully consider a second class genre, the Baen editions just denigrate it further.

The Overlook books do not have this problem. Their edition of James Blish's Cities in Flight is exactly what a classic reprint should be. This hefty, reasonably priced hardback collecting all four volumes of the long out-of-print series features an eye catching cover and an introduction by Betty Ballantine. Besides, anyone who can bring and keep The Gormenghast Trilogy in print as an omnibus in the U.S. deserves my kudos.

Other publishers have managed to successfully reprint science fiction classics. Vintage, with its line of Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester reprints and iBooks' attractive versions of the best of Roger Zelazny are two others. Most publishers reprint at least a few classic works. Some just do it better than others.

Perhaps the classiest, most complete, and most interesting reprints are done by the smaller presses. Publishers such as Golden Gryphon, NESFA, Night Shade, Savoy, and Subterranean have all brought back into print "lost" or forgotten works in superior editions. These books are often exceptionally well done sometimes with interior illustrations, high quality printing, and beautiful covers. The down sides are usually higher prices and lack of wide distribution. Rarely do these publishers offer affordable paperback editions. It's very difficult to introduce a new generation of readers to an older author or work when they can't easily find the book in their local bookstore, or they have to shell out $30 or more.

Even with all this classic reprinting going on, books like Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, Neal Barrett, Jr.'s Aldair series, and K.W. Jeter's Dr. Adder remain out of print. If questioned, most publishers claim that reprints just don't sell well. While I was the managing editor for Mojo Press, our two bestselling titles were the Blueberry Saga: Confederate Gold and Behold the Man: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. Both books had been reprinted many times before our versions, but in both cases we offered something unique (In Blueberry, a rarely seen Moebius Blueberry story and an introduction by legendary western writer Elmer Kelton, and with Behold the original novella, an introduction by Jonathan Carroll and a lengthy afterward by Moorcock both in a beautifully crafted, affordable package.) I don't buy that reprints don't sell. Obviously, older books can and do sell. It's all in the presentation. The art is in making something old new again.

1 It is very important to differentiate between the Conans written by Howard and those written by others. Conan has become an industry with many different writers attempting the tales over the years. No writer has ever come close to matching the quality of Howard's originals.

2 I maintain an entire list of suggested writers and books to help writers with particular writing problems.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. Lately, he's been dreaming of growing his hair long again, wielding a battle axe, and ravaging the countryside.

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