WHEN I WAS WRITING
A Literary Memoir
Installment Nine: Tom and Sara Go to Delta Pavonis II
For my next attempt to write an Ace double, I decided I would tackle another classic SF subject: the human from a technologically advanced society who is set down on a primitive world and forced to fight with swords and bows. Before I embarked on that adventure, however, I took up a more mundane task. I taught myself to type.
I had now been writing steadily for over fourteen years. I had written about a hundred short stories-- approximately half a million words-- before I made my first sale in 1957, and I had probably produced another three hundred thousand words since then. I had pounded out all that material with just one finger. I had started typing by the hunt and peck system when I had taken over my mother’s Underwood portable at the age of thirteen and I had never learned to touch type. I could actually type faster than a lot of ten fingered typists.
Now I had run most of a novel through two drafts in less than three months and my right arm had developed a persistent ache. It was obviously time I learned to type like a normal person.
Like many writers, I had developed a superstitious attitude toward my work habits. Would my style change if I started typing with ten fingers? Would I lose the literary skills I had acquired over the last thirteen years?
I decided I would make the transition in stages. I bought a book on touch typing and spent an hour every evening working on the lessons. In the afternoon, during my regular writing sessions, I applied my one finger technique to a new short story. I typed up a pile of notes, created a scenario, and put the story through three drafts. Then, when I had done most of the creative work the way I had always done it, I switched to touch typing and typed the submission draft.
The story was called “Greenplace” and it became my first sale to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-- the one member of the Big Three I still hadn’t sold to. My plan had worked. I had made the transition to touch typing without disturbing the fickle deities who controlled my creative powers.
For the new novel, I got a lot of my ideas from three books: The Forest and the Sea by a biologist named Marston Bates; Planets for Man by Isaac Asimov and Stephen Dole; and The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp. A Scientific American article on the evolution of intelligence contributed the basic idea I used to create the aliens my hero encountered.
The Forest and the Sea is a lucidly written introduction to ecology that focuses on the rain forest and the coral reef. They are both places, Marston Bates points out, where life exists at distinct levels, based primarily on the amount of sunlight each level receives. In the coral lagoon, the energy level decreases as you go from the surface to the bottom. In the rain forest, the tops of the tall trees soak up the light. The floor of a rain forest is more open than the Hollywood image of a jungle suggests, Bates emphasizes. Life is at its most abundant and varied near the top and becomes sparser as you move down.
In the forest, in addition, the branches become thicker and stronger as you descend. Smaller, lighter creatures inhabit the upper levels. Bigger, heavier creatures occupy the lower branches and the forest floor.
Planets for Man is a popular version of a Rand Corporation study that looked at the probability a nearby star may cast its light on a habitable planet.
The Rand study defined a habitable planet as a planet that would provide humans with a livable environment-- a place where we can step out of the starship and walk around without a space suit. That means the planet has to have an oxygen atmosphere, a gravitational field that isn’t too high, and an average temperature we can tolerate. The study examined all the major requirements and considered the factors that influence the requirements. To have an oxygen atmosphere, for example, a planet must be a certain minimum size. If it’s too small, the gravitational field will be too weak and oxygen will drift away.
A planet’s distance from its sun is another important matter. Too close, and the climate will be too hot. Too far, and it will be too cold.
The Rand analysts examined all the stars within twenty-two light years and concluded fourteen looked like good candidates. The sixth chapter of the Asimov/Dole book listed all fourteen with the probability each star might have a habitable planet. I looked over the list and picked Delta Pavonis-- the fourth brightest star in the southern constellation Pavonis. I selected it mostly because I couldn’t remember any stories that had taken place on a planet that orbited Delta Pavonis. My hero would fight his way across the second planet of Delta Pavonis-- Delta Pavonis II, in the nomenclature that has become traditional in science fiction. It would be the second planet, of course, because Earth is the third planet from our star, and every little bit of difference adds something to the verisimilitude of the story.
The Ancient Engineers is a history of technology from prehistoric times up to the beginning of the modern era-- a dividing line that its author places sometime in the seventeenth century. L. Sprague de Camp was a writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and science, which he applied, with disciplined industry, to the steady production of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction. He lived in Philadelphia from WWII up to the late 80s and he was one of the great characters of the science fiction community-- a funny, well-traveled man with an eye for the perennial foibles of the human species. The Ancient Engineers is one of his best books. It contained specific examples of technology that I could use in my book and it gave me a general feel for the kind of technology a society could develop before it learned how to drive its machines with fossil fuels.
The Scientific American article discussed the interaction between the hand, the upright posture, and the brain in human evolution. Essentially, it viewed tool making as the foundation of human intelligence. The hand, the brain, and the upright posture all evolved together as our early ancestors became more dependent on their ability to make and use simple tools and weapons. Natural selection favored individuals who could walk on two legs, so their hands were free, and it favored the development of the brain that controlled the hands.
This all became possible, of course, because our ancestors had descended from the trees and made forays into the African plains. If they had stayed in the trees, they would have kept the crouching, semi-upright posture we see in our cousins, the chimpanzees.
Many SF writers have argued that any aliens we meet will probably be bipedal creatures like us. The hands, the brain, and the upright posture are so interlinked any intelligent, technologically advanced species will probably look like a variation on our basic pattern.
It’s a reasonable idea. Still, if you’re going to be a science fiction writer, you should automatically start looking for alternatives and exceptions when you encounter a statement like that. Couldn’t you have an intelligent creature, for example, with a more limited use of its hands? Suppose an alien tree-dweller retained the crouching posture but started playing around with sticks and stones anyway.
You don’t have to move around a lot, after all, when you’re making tools and weapons. You can use both hands while you’re crouching in your tree house fastening a rock to the end of your war club, for example. And you don’t need both hands when you work or fight. You can swing the club against your enemy’s head with one hand while you hold onto a branch with the other.
Suppose a planet didn’t have big open plains. Suppose it was uniformly covered with forest. The tool users would stay in the trees. And retain the crouching posture suitable for tree-dwellers.
I have a strong bias against uniform imaginary planets-- worlds that are all ice or all jungle. Imaginary planets should be just as varied as our own world. In this case, however, I deliberately selected three conditions that might make a uniform planet plausible.
Distance from the sun-- Delta Pavonis II receives more energy from its sun than Earth does. Its vegetation is therefore bigger and more widespread.
Axial inclination-- The Earth is tipped about eighteen degrees on its axis, which is the main reason we have seasons. Delta Pavonis II is only tipped about two or three degrees, which means it doesn’t have seasons to speak of.
Length of the day-- Here on Earth, our day has gradually been getting longer. We have a very big moon, compared to the size of our planet, and the gravitational field associated with our oversize companion has been slowing us down ever since the moon took shape. Delta Pavonis II is moonless and its day is therefore only eighteen hours long.
All these factors, I presumed, could create a more uniform climate with a uniform landscape covered with giant trees.
The Scientific American article suggested a personality difference I could exploit for story purposes. There is a basic conflict, the author pointed out, between bipedal walking and the evolution of intelligence. The human pelvis-- and the female birth canal-- became narrower as our ancestors straightened up. But the brain was expanding as the pelvis contracted. At some point, the human brain became so big it could no longer pass through the narrow human pelvis.
Natural selection therefore favored babies who were born while their brains were still growing. Human babies are helpless creatures who need constant care-- a development that put a premium on the emotions that hold the human family together. Our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, produce infants who can start scampering around as soon as they’re born.
I assumed that my tree-dwelling aliens would have mobile infants who were born with fully developed brains. Their parents, I reasoned, would have to impose rewards and punishments from the moment they were born. Their adults would be less empathetic than humans and their societies would be held together primarily by rewards and punishments, rather than emotional bonds.
But is tool-making the only trait that could initiate the evolution of intelligence? It was a natural question to ask once I had started thinking along these lines and my brain soon supplied an answer. Humans have another skill that distinguishes them from the other animals that inhabit our planet. Our ability to use language is just as important as our technological talents.
Imagine a four-legged carnivore that hunts in packs. It is small for a carnivore and not very fast. But it can survive and reproduce when it works with other members of its species. It has a limited ability to exchange signals, in the same way wolves communicate on our world, and natural selection begins to operate on that ability. The signals become more elaborate. The brain expands as the animal becomes more dependent on language. Eventually, after several million years of evolution, the forest is inhabited by an intelligent, fully conscious quadruped with highly developed languages and cultures.
Could two intelligent species evolve on the same world? Marston Bates’ book suggested they could. The forest floor and the middle branches of the trees are separate environments. The tree dwellers and the pack hunters could evolve in parallel without coming into conflict during their formative millennia.
I couldn’t remember any stories about planets with two intelligent species. There had been probably been some but it was obviously a relatively fresh idea. And it immediately suggested a conflict. At some point the tree-dwellers would develop a technology that would give them an edge over the handless pack hunters. The hunters might be just as intelligent, with all kinds of achievements in literature and philosophy, but the tree-dwellers would eventually dominate the planet.
Suppose the tree-dwellers have reached the equivalent of the early Iron Age. Suppose they have begun to enslave the hunters and use them to draw carts and carry burdens, as if they were unusually bright animals. And now a small group of humans lands on a world in which two intelligent species are locked in conflict....
What kind of society did the humans come from? Again, I didn’t want to use a cliché interstellar federation. I opted instead for a small band of refugees from an oppressed future Earth.
My short story “Greenplace” had dealt with a subject that had intrigued me for some time-- political control through the use of an advanced psychology. I was contemplating a novel built around that idea and it occurred to me a short story would make an ideal first chapter for a novel. A short story is supposed to grab your interest from the first sentence and hold it for three to five thousand words without letup-- which is exactly what a good opening chapter should do.
I hadn’t worked out all the details of my future mind control society, but I decided a human settlement on the Moon had become the last outpost of freedom. When the controllers started taking it over, a small group hijacked a starship they had been building on the Moon and headed for the nearest habitable planet astronomers had managed to locate. When they orbited Delta Pavonis II, they were shocked to discover wooden towers that rose above the forest. They landed on an isolated plateau far above the forest-- a cooler area, more suitable for humans-- and created a base while they pondered their next move.
It’s not the best background I ever invented and I left it pretty vague. I decided my first chapter would start a few hours after the human settlement has been disrupted by a violent political dispute. The hero would be the son of the leader of the settlement. The story would open with him barricaded in a strong position, waiting for a final attack by the people who have just murdered his father. He is armed with a bow and he is planning to kill as many of his enemies as he can before he dies. He is approached by an emissary, a young woman he is fond of, and she tells him the leaders of the other faction are willing to make an offer. They will give him a cart and the minimum equipment he needs to survive if he will leave the settlement and go into exile in the forest. The young woman, Joanne, has decided she wants to go with him. And so, two humans leave their isolated base and descend into an unexplored world.
I decided my human adventurers would be a young couple because (as you have no doubt guessed) I thought it would add another novel element to the story. In most sword and planet stories, the hero is a lone male. Sometimes-- as in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars stories-- he even falls in love with an alien princess, who just happens to be incredibly attractive even though her physique has been shaped by an entirely different evolutionary history.
I yielded to temptation and modeled my couple on Sara and me. Harold, like me, has a dour streak running through his basically upbeat personality. He also has my most noticeable physical handicap. He is nearsighted. He doesn’t wear glasses because his father has convinced him he has to learn how to get along without them, since there is no guarantee the small human settlement will be able to produce glasses in the future. He has learned to use a bow for the same reason. The humans have firearms but they have exiled themselves from the infrastructure that produces gunpowder, cartridges, and machined metal parts.
Harold is noticeably more muscular than his author. In many sword and planet stories, the hero pulls off spectacular feats because the planet is smaller than Earth, with a weaker gravitational field. Delta Pavonis II is ten percent larger than our home planet and Harold’s muscles have developed in response.
Joanne, like Sara, is slender and redheaded, with Sara’s tenderness and some of her other emotional reactions. She has two of Sara’s physical problems.
One of Sara’s legs was slightly longer than the other-- a trait that was so minor she seems to have been the only person who noticed it. I decided the higher gravity would have given Joanne a slight limp. Stronger muscles, I reasoned, might put extra stress on bones that evolved in a weaker gravitational field.
Sara had problems with allergies. Joanne has developed allergies because of the way her immune system has responded to the alien organisms on the planet.
How do you name aliens? How do you coin words from made-up languages?
Different writers have different techniques. Poul Anderson once indicated he sometimes started with the names on a map of a particular country. Many writers mine the vocabulary and syntax of real human languages.
For this book I used a technique I made up myself. I selected a small number of consonants and two vowels for each imaginary language in the book. Then I composed a list of words. I figured all the words in each group would sound like they came from a particular language, even if I didn’t spend a lot of time constructing a real grammar and etymology. The main tree-dweller city in the book is called Imeten, for example, and its inhabitants have names like Nimenlej and Jemil Min. The Imetens call the pack hunters the Itiji and that’s the name they’re given throughout the story. The Itiji themselves, on the other hand, have three-word names with lots of I and a sounds.
I was creating the background for an action story so the Imetens became a warlike people. They call themselves the Warriors of Imeten, their leader is the High Warrior, and they have a Great Priest who collects contributions and tells them the will of the Goddess they are supposed to serve. When they have an irresolvable quarrel, they determine the will of the Goddess by a form of trial by combat-- a custom our ancestors thought up for the benefit of adventure story writers.
Sprague had noted that a lot of early technology developed in “watershed empires” such as the centers that flourished in Mesopotamia. That suggested another source of conflict I could use to develop a plot. Imeten would rise beside a river and it would be threatened by an empire builder named Lidris of Drovil who coveted its iron mine.
The tree-dwellers' primary missile weapon would be the blowgun, I decided. They wouldn’t use bows because the bow is a two handed weapon. Their Itiji slaves would haul things along the ground by pulling wheelless sleds. The cart Harold and Joanne pull through the forest is a revelation to both species.
The trial by combat ritual takes place in a big three-dimensional grid, the kind of thing we called a “jungle gym” when I was young enough to use playground equipment. Humans normally fought duels on level ground, I reasoned, and the grid would be the equivalent of level terrain for the tree-dwellers.
Food was another matter I used to add some realistic detail to the story. The life forms on Delta Pavonis II, like all living things on Earth, are based on big, complex molecules built around groups of carbon atoms. They have their versions of amino acids and proteins but none of their basic molecules have the same structure as the molecules found on Earth. Humans can’t eat the native plants and animals. The humans on the plateau must plant terrestrial crops and raise terrestrial livestock.
For field rations, I invented an item called “cheese fungus”. When you throw native plants into a bed containing this stuff, it breaks them down and produces proteins people can eat. The end product looks something like cheese, with a flavor that varies from batch to batch.
I worked out the scenario, as usual, by typing notes and eventually writing a long outline. In the second chapter, Harold and Joanne are attacked by Itiji and the fight ends when both sides realize they are dealing with intelligent beings and the Itiji withdraw. Chapter three switches to the viewpoint of a tree-dweller from the nearby city of Imeten who is interrogating an Itiji who has seen these strange creatures who can use both hands when they fight. Harold and Joanne are captured by the Imetens and Harold is forced to fight for them in their struggles against their enemies. Harold becomes involved in the factional struggles in Imeten and the climax comes when he goes into the grid, and fights to prove he should be accepted as a full-fledged Warrior of Imeten.
The climax raised the problem I struggle with every time I work out a plot. How can you arrange a convincing resolution when you’ve put your hero in the worst predicament you can think of?
My solution was to have Harold do something unexpected that requires tremendous courage on his part-- something so risky he will die if he fails. The emotional difficulties are compounded, furthermore, by a science fictional element-- the stronger gravity of the planet.
Gravitational force is measured by acceleration-- the rate at which falling bodies gain speed. A falling human would accelerate faster on Delta Pavonis II and I reasoned this would exaggerate his biochemical responses. Harold must overcome that panicking extra flood of emotion when he makes the leap that offers him his only chance at victory.
I wrote the three chapters without any serious difficulties and the outline went smoothly, too. As I remember it, I sent the package to Scott Meredith in November of 1964. And got it back sometime in December.
The agency liked the book but they weren’t happy with the plot. They felt I should center the story on the conflict between the two intelligent species.
I had avoided doing that because I felt there are too many science fiction stories in which the hero saves an entire world. The agency’s advice probably made sense commercially, however, and they obviously weren’t going to market the package as it stood.
The first three chapters didn’t have to be touched. I just had to rewrite the outline. I grumbled a bit and quickly worked out a new overall plot line. Harold would help some of the Itiji slaves free themselves and become involved in a general struggle against the Warriors of Imeten. The plot would move from guerilla war to an all out assault on Imeten. The final resolution would be an alliance between the Warriors and the Itiji, who would help the Warriors in their struggle with the empire builder, Lidris of Drovil.
I could even keep my climax. At the darkest moment, when the attack on Imeten seemed to have failed, Harold would tell the Imetens the goddess wants them to accept the Itiji as equals and allies, and go into the grid to prove it.
The humans’ major contributions to the struggle would be Harold’s leadership and the weapons they could build for the Itiji. I devoted some thought to devising weapons the Itiji could operate, even if they couldn’t build them. Harold designs a two-Itiji crossbow, for example. One Itiji has it strapped to his back and the other Itiji loads and draws with his teeth. For the attack on Imeten, Harold designs an assault tower they can float to Imeten on a raft. The Itiji run up ramps inside the tower and fight the Warriors in their own element, in the branches that house their city.
The Itiji can also fight with their claws and teeth, in addition to their weapons. The Itiji evolved from pack hunters but I had decided they would look more like cats than wolves or dogs. I had done this partly to add another touch of difference but I also tend to prefer cats to dogs. My family had owned several dogs when I was growing up and I had liked all of them. But we had always owned a cat, too, and cats are clearly a better choice for urbanites. Sara was allergic to dogs and all her childhood pets had been cats.
My work on the outline included a good example of the importance of “thinking outside the box”. Harold’s break for freedom begins when he and Nimenlej go on a raiding expedition in two carts pulled by Itiji. Harold breaks free when he gets a chance, in the hope he can get back to Imeten and pick up Joanne before anyone realizes he’s left Nimenlej behind. Nimenlej pursues him and there’s a chase in the forest, with the Imetens firing their blowguns and Harold using his bow. The chase ends, in good plot skeleton style, when one of the Itiji is wounded and Harold is cornered.
I probably spent two or three days trying to figure out how Harold would save himself. Then I realized my imagination was trapped in a restrictive framework. I had been thinking of the episode as a cart chase-- an outdoor action sequence similar to the famous canoe chase in The Last of the Mohicans. In my mind, the Itiji had become cart animals. All my attempts to work out an ending had focused on things Harold could do by himself. But the Itiji weren’t cart animals. They were intelligent, conscious people. Suppose Harold offered to free them from their traces if they helped him fight his pursuers and agreed to pull the cart back to Imeten afterward. Suppose they agreed-- but their leader asked for assurances Harold would help them in the future.
It’s a pivotal moment in the story-- and one of the most stirring. Harold cuts the Itiji’s bonds with his sword and they charge Nimenlej and his party together. The representatives of two intelligent species overcome their suspicions and form an alliance. And I wouldn’t have thought of it if I had continued to look for a more conventional action-hero resolution.
I mailed Scott Meredith the new package sometime after the New Year, they liked it, and I received a contract from Ace Books with the usual Ace terms, including the three month deadline.
My memory is that the writing went pretty smoothly. There were times when it was actually fun. I can remember one moment, when I was describing the assault on Imeten, when I actually threw up my sword arm and let out a war cry as I was sitting at my typewriter.
I had given myself a big technical advantage, as I realized as I wrote the story. Most modern science fiction takes place in a future which is seen through the eyes of a character who takes its technological and social developments for granted. Nobody can explain anything to the viewpoint character, anymore than we explain cell phones and desk top computers to each other.
This is the distinctive technical problem of science fiction and it demands a special kind of craftsmanship. Nineteenth century science fiction often got around it with a “sleeper wakes” main character-- somebody from the author’s time who hibernates for a couple of centuries and wakes up in the future.
The “guy from Brooklyn” is another helpful device. The term originated back in the days when Brooklynites were stereotyped as working class average guys with limited education. Put somebody in the story who doesn’t know very much and the other characters can realistically explain things the reader needs to know. The pioneering 1950 movie Destination Moon even included a real guy from Brooklyn, a low-level technician the three scientists on the ship had to take along at the last minute.
Harold and Joanne are newcomers to the world of the tree-dwellers and the Itiji. I could describe everything as it would look to someone who was seeing it for the first time, as if they were sleepers or time travelers. The Imetens and the Itiji could guide them through it as if they were guys from Brooklyn.
Harold’s near sightedness was an additional help. When I got to the scene in which he and Joanne see the tree-dwellers for the first time, I kept bogging down when I tried to describe the newcomers through Harold’s eyes. Then I realized Harold couldn’t see them very well when they were carefully staying a hundred yards away. He asks Joanne to describe them to him and the scene leaped to life as soon as I transferred the description to dialogue.
I had given the book a heroic title, A Man Can Die But Once. The phrase comes from a passage in Henry IV that Ernest Hemingway quoted in a famous moment in one of his short stories. By my troth I care not, a man can die but once. We owe God a death, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next. Harold thinks of the quote as he and the Itiji are advancing toward the enemy on their first raid against the Imetens.
Nobody had discussed the title with me but I knew it might not survive. I figured Don would probably change it to The Warriors of Imeten. The cover would probably depict the trial by combat in the grid.
I sent the completed manuscript in on time and Don accepted it and sent Scott Meredith the second installment of the advance. A couple of months before the book appeared, I had a conversation with Terry Carr, who had become an editor at Ace.
“I should tell you we’re changing your title,” Terry said.
“The Warriors of Imeten,” I said.
Terry smiled. “The Tree Lord of Imeten.”
“What’s on the cover?”
“The climactic fight.”
Ace paired The Tree Lord of Imeten with Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, a comer in the science fiction world who has since become a prominent literary figure outside the genre. Sara reversed the copies in a local drugstore that displayed Delany’s cover on the outside and I had to tell her the book would sell better if people saw Delany’s side.
Tree Lord is probably the book I see the most when people come up to me at science fiction conventions and ask for an autograph. A lot of people obviously bought it to read the Delany but I get the impression they were pleasantly surprised by the flip side of the package. Harold’s nearsightedness was a popular touch. Most SF readers wear glasses. They appreciated a story that didn’t gloss over an obvious drawback to the attractions of a heroic lifestyle.
The Itiji seem to have been popular, too. As some commentators have noted, science fiction fans tend to be cat people. Aliens who resembled intelligent, articulate cats were guaranteed to win their hearts (though I didn’t think about that at the time I worked them out).
The fact that I’m still autographing copies of a book forty years after I wrote it says something, I think, about the hold science fiction has on its audience and the special nature of the relationship between science fiction writers and their readers.
Rich Horton is a reviewer and editor who has been posting reviews of all the Ace Doubles on his website. He considers Empire Star one of Delany’s lighter works and he has many reservations about my half but he feels “the combined Ace Double has to rank as one of the stronger books in the whole series.” Tree Lord in his opinion is “solid work” but he sums it up as “fairly routine really but it’s redeemed by a pretty decent job of portraying the two species, particularly the ground-dwellers, and by the fairly well-characterized main characters. “
Rich notes that Tree Lord could have been followed by a sequel about “the contact between the two indigenous species and the rest of the human colony” and wonders if I wrote it. I had the same thought while I was writing the book. The sequel would have been called Conquistadors of Imeten and it might have generated a whole series, with titles like Children of Imeten and Exiles of Imeten. The Imeten books might be warmly remembered by thousands of SF readers.
I did write Conquistadors of Imeten but I wrote it several years later, for a publisher who was starting a new science fiction line, and it got caught in a hassle. Scott Meredith showed the manuscript to Don Wollheim and Don rejected it on the grounds too much time had passed since the first book had been published.
I probably should have written the sequel for Ace and tried my hand at a series as soon as I finished Tree Lord. I would have enjoyed writing the books and a lot of readers would have enjoyed reading them. But I didn’t.
Copyright 2007 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.
Rich Horton's review and John Schoenherr's cover can be viewed online.
When I was Writing: Installment One
When I was Writing: Installment Two When I was Writing: Installment Three
When I was Writing: Installment Four When I was Writing: Installment Five
When I was Writing: Installment Six When I was Writing: Installment Seven
When I was Writing: Installment Eight
When I was Writing: Installment Ten
Grieve for a Man (complete text)
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