Harrison was a successful author of fantasy books but he was having trouble with his work this morning and he sighed and put down his pen. He still wrote the old-fashioned way but this didn’t mean he had a dislike of computers. He just preferred the feel of a fountain pen in his fingers. He guessed this was because he was a rock climber in his spare time, used to gripping tiny irregular swellings in the face of a cliff. He was an extremely tactile man.
The fiction he wrote wasn’t the usual kind of fantasy. Harrison thought that pure escapism was a very bad thing. He loathed the idea of sedentary people with no experience of physical activity reading about dangerous journeys over appalling landscapes or about epic battles, because those readers couldn’t truly understand or identify with what was happening. Harrison thought that such fantasy was fake and immature and that it pandered to losers.
So he wrote fantasy with a hard edge, a kind of fantasy that was almost the same as realism. In his fairytale castles there were always dirty dishes in the sink, and his heroes and heroines generally found themselves hampered by the mundane worries of everyday life, and his background characters were miserable and full of despair and never managed to achieve success or happiness in anything. Harrison’s fantasy was the exact opposite of escapism.
He never sold many copies of his books but the critics and reviewers adored him and many imitators tried to write stories in the same way as he did. He was a famous writer in a small way and considered by a coterie of connoisseurs to be the best living exponent of this new kind of fantasy in the world. For Harrison the true enemy was Tolkien and his imitators because of the way he misled readers into the erroneous belief that good won in the end.
There were no simple messages about morality or anything else in the books Harrison wrote. Every incident in every one of his stories was about the difficulties of achieving any progress at all in any endeavour. His characters slogged bleakly through his tales, weighed down by a host of burdens and wearing themselves out mentally as they kept meeting obstructions that couldn’t be surmounted. In fact it could be said that Harrison wrote anti-fantasy.
And now he was working on his latest masterpiece. So far it followed nearly the same basic pattern as his other books, heavy on the use of symbolism and with descriptive passages of unusual clarity and force. Reading a Harrison novel was at times like experiencing a particularly vivid and weird hallucination. His prose style had a crystalline quality but it was also feverish and unearthly. It was impossible to compare his work with any other living author.
He relied on a small number of powerful and effective tricks. His characters would always aspire to some great achievement, set off on a magnificent quest, but run out of energy or will or simply get distracted by the bitter ironies of life and the journey was never completed, the quest never resolved. Harrison’s heroes not only had feet of clay but hearts of the same substance. They would dream of a better and more magical place which was our own world.
In this manner Harrison hoped to oppose that sloppy desire for escapism that readers of fantasy seemed to brim with. His work stressed that escape of any kind at all was an illusion, an indulgence, an immature yearning that could never, and in fact should never, be fulfilled. And the critics were delighted and told him that he was exactly the sort of writer the public needed. He responded to such praise with a sneer because he hated to appear enthusiastic.
His fantasy worlds were often given mildly humorous names that sounded as if they were dreamy mystic places but which were only the names of fruit reversed. This convention was a private joke for Harrison. He wrote tales set in the kingdom of Amustas, in the republics of Ognam and Ayapap, in the anarchist communes of Etanrgemop, Tiurfeparg and Ananab. Very few readers ever understood that these names were jokes. Those that did felt quite smug.
Right now he was writing a new novel set on a distant planet called Tocirpa that orbited a star by the name of Nolem. But work wasn’t proceeding smoothly at all. It’s not that he felt blocked but that the story wanted to go in a direction that he didn’t approve and he felt unable to stop it. He wrote a paragraph and then fiercely scribbled it out, so fiercely that the nib of the pen broke and he had to get out of his chair in order to fetch a new one from a cupboard.
As he returned to work with a frown on his face, his wife entered the room and softly approached him. He turned his head rapidly, his pony tail whipping his cheekbone as he did so, but the sight of her softened him. He stroked his pointed goatee beard and sighed. She came closer and asked, “What’s the matter, dear? I had a feeling you were troubled, so I came to investigate. I pick up these sorts of things, you know. It’s because I must be psychic.”
He waved a dismissive hand, then he laughed. “Just that my new story has a life of its own. It won’t do what I want it to.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked.
“Maybe for some other writers, yes! But not for me! Absolute control is the fundamental point of supreme importance in my working methods. For instance, I am now writing the scene where the hero of the story (though he’s not a real hero, of course, as none of my characters are) is leaving our planet in a spaceship that is powered by mood-beams. He is planning to travel to Tocirpa and his mind must be bleak in order for him to make the ship work.”
“I don’t understand that.”
“The spaceship engine is activated by depression and other negative moods. It won’t fly if the pilot is happy. Like I said, mood-beams. So I wrote the passage in which the hero enters the ship and starts to operate the controls but then I knew that something about him was very wrong.”
“What was it?” she wondered.
“It dawned on me that this character of mine was a cat! I know that sounds really silly but it’s true. I mean, I ought to know better than anyone how any of my characters are going to look and act. I’m the one in charge! But somehow this cat had sneaked into my story, had taken over the role of hero and was about to travel to a distant planet before I could stop him.”
“Is it really so bad for a cat to be the main character?”
“A talking cat!” he bellowed.
His lower lip quivered and he banged down his fist on the writing desk and for almost a minute he was unable to articulate a sensible word, then with a sigh so deep it seemed full of sunken ships, he said quietly, “Have you any idea what the critics would do to me if I published a novel about a talking cat? A novel about any sort of cat is bad enough, but one that can talk...”
“Why is it such a bad thing?”
“It’s the ultimate sin, the biggest faux pas that any fantasy writer can ever commit! No reviewer with any credibility would ever praise a story that includes a talking cat. It’s just not done. In creative writing classes where beginners are asked to write stories, do you know how many end up writing stories about cats? A heck of a lot of them! A good percentage of those stories are about cats that can talk. It’s considered to be a very amateurish thing to do.”
“I didn’t know that,” she replied.
“Well, that happens to be the case. A talking cat is a big taboo. It would be the end of my career as a serious writer.”
“In that case,” she suggested mildly, “don’t have one.”
“A career?” he shrieked.
“A cat, I meant,” she explained.
“But that’s just the problem!” he roared. “I can’t seem to make my hero a man. He ends up being a cat, a talking cat! I must have rewritten this scene thirty or forty times and he still ends up being a talking cat. A talking cat called Tufty! Can you believe it? The critics will crucify me!”
Harrison began sobbing and his tears fell onto the page and made the ink run. “What shall I do? What shall I do?”
His wife was silent for several minutes, then she said, “I have an idea. Why don’t you just write the novel with the talking cat as a hero but publish it under a false name, a pen name, a pseudonym?”
He dried his eyes and blinked at her.
A glow slowly suffused his pale hollow cheeks. His ponytail oscillated like a hairy pendulum as he wobbled his head in glee.
“Yes, yes! That will work! Yes, yes! That is a great solution. The critics will hate it but the public will love it. It means I can write the story the way it wants to be written, and make money from it too, without losing my reputation as a serious intellectual author. Thank you, thank you!”
He hugged her. She responded warmly to his embrace.
“I am so glad I married you!”
“Thanks,” she said. “I am pleased about it too.”
“You are the best wife a man could ever have. But I will have to think of a good pen name to use for this book.”
He rested his chin on his closed hand. She waited.
Then he cried, “Why don’t I just reverse my name? I could pretend my name was a piece of fruit and spell it backwards.”
“No sirrah!” she responded.
He gaped at her and his face fell. “It’s a bad idea.”
She laughed. “I just made a joke. Your name backwards is ‘No sirrah’ and that’s an old-fashioned way of saying no. Critics would work it out and it’s not a proper name anyway. Why not use my name?”
“Gabrielle, you mean?”
“Sure. You are always telling me I’m like a queen to you, so why not call yourself Gabrielle Queen for this book?”
“Brilliant! And if it’s successful I will write sequels.”
She smiled. “Do you have a title?”
“For this one? Yes I do as a matter of fact.” He rummaged through all the papers scattered over his desk until he found the first page of his manuscript. He took his new pen and scratched out the original title. Then he blinked his eyes a few times rapidly as he gathered his thoughts.
His darling wife purred and nuzzled up against him as with one hand he stroked her furry pointed ears and with the other wrote the following three words, which also happen to be the real title of this story:
HIS WIFE'S WHISKERS