By Bud Webster

It's Not the Length, It's What You Do With It

A few years ago as turtles reckon time, it became popular for 'net writers to write something called "flash" fiction, stories of fewer than a thousand words. Quick, in-your-face, and sharply pointed — or so flash writers fondly believed. Most of the time, they were obvious, tepid, overblown and, as Prof. F. Leghorn would have put it, about as sharp as a bowling ball. Bowling ball, that is.

And of course, the practitioners of said literary form considered themselves, quod erat demonstrandum, sine qua non (and non-compos mentis) absolutely on the Cutting Edge of Literature. After all, they were doing it online, right?

Booshwah. And again I say, boosh-wah. Not even close. We can set aside for the moment the Drabble, a curious little literary object consisting of exactly 100 words (title included) created by the members of the sf association of Birmingham, England. They assembled at least two compilations of said shorties by their professional writer guests over the years, some of them not too shabby, considering. Hard to go wrong with names like Brunner, Aldiss and Ballard. I digress, though.

No, the short-short story has been around a lot longer than that, and has been collected in no fewer than a half-dozen anthologies over the years by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Groff Conklin, and Marty Greenberg.

What most of the flashistas don't seem to realize is that however fine they may whet what they consider the cutting edge, they're just grinding away at the back-strap with a rasp file. That razor-edge was honed to perfection years before by a master: Fredric Brown.

Fredric William Brown was born 102 years ago in Cincinnati. He matriculated at Hanover College in Indiana, and ended up spending a significant amount of time in Wisconsin working as a proofreader for the Milwaukee Journal, after the fashion of any number of genre writers, like Clifford Simak and Abraham Merritt, who learned how to put words in order as journalists.

Let me be frank. There's nothing terribly sensational or incredible about Brown, neither his fiction nor his life. He was born, he wrote some stuff, he died. Exactly the same could be said for dozens, if not hundreds, of writers, many of whom busted their humps to make a living as writers and ended up footnotes in a reference book, with little — if anything — in print after their deaths.

So what makes him different? Well, if you've read much of anything by him, you'd know the answer to that. For those of you who haven't, or who didn't get it on the first pass, here's my answer: he did what he did with an economy of words and an elegance of idea that only a handful of other writers can approach. Almost certainly, his work as a newspaperman taught him how, but he took it to the limit and made it not only his trademark, but he has become so identified with the short-short story that anyone daring to write that length will inevitably be compared to him — even if they've never heard of him, the poor dears. If you write about elves and rings, you're going to be compared to Tolkien; if you write military sf, you get smacked with Dickson (and more recently, Weber and/or Drake); if you go small at all, Brown takes the call.

And enough of that. It's true, though. Brown was capable of refining a story idea down to a couple of sentences, as is the case (in a way) with what is perhaps his best-known, if least-correctly remembered, story, "Knock," (originally published in the December 1948 Thrilling Wonder Stories) which begins:

There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long: " The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door..."

Many, many people (myself included until I began researching this article) are convinced that Brown wrote the shortest stand-alone sf/fantasy story ever with those two Italicized lines, but the reality is that, except for being quoted as such, they exist solely as part of a longer story. In the preface of The Best Science Fiction Stories — 1949 (ed. Bleiler & Dikty, Fredrick Fell 1949), the editors say:

..."Knock" is based on the horror anecdote attributed to Thomas Bailey Aldrich — the last woman on earth hears a knock on her door....Well-known authors have dealt with the same theme before...but we wonder whether they would have had the courage to tell Brown's story of a middle-aged unromantic professor and an unwilling female.

In a way, it's a shame that Brown can't be credited with that two-liner. After all, it's the ultimate word in story-telling elegance, and that's his specialty. But I will state here and now that those two lines do not now, nor have they ever, constituted a "story" as I understand and practice it, and I suspect that I'll get little (if any) argument on the point. They do, however, make a pretty damn fine hook for a longer, and far more satisfying, yarn.

But how did he start? Not by writing sf, that's for sure. In fact, his first stories were apparently written for trade magazines like The Michigan Well Driller and Excavating Engineer from as early as 1936 (see the extensive biblio at the bottom of the page, and take a lunch), and he did a proofreaders' column, "The Proofreader's Page," in American Printer for the better part of a decade, but his first "real" sale was a mystery, "The Moon for a Nickel," in the March 1938 Detective Story. Throughout his career he was at least as well known (and for most of it, far better known) for his detective stories and novels. The Fabulous Clipjoint, published in 1947, won the Edgar for Best First Novel, and he never really turned away from the genre.

His first sf sale wasn't until 1941, with "Not Yet the End" in the Winter issue of Captain Future. It was an inauspicious beginning in the field, frankly, and showed little of the promise and wit of stories that came even a few years later. It certainly wasn't the confident and assured work that the next year's "Etaoin Shrdlu" would be, but cut the guy some slack. He made up for it pretty fast, and I do like it better than "The Moon for a Nickel."

Brown was equally adept at all the major pulpish genres, although his output of Westerns was less than that of his other stories. Nothing spectacular about that, of course, as anyone who wanted to make a living from writing in those days had to be able to write anything. But his heart wasn't really in sagebrush and gunfights, and after a while he limited himself to gumshoes, angels, and spaceships.

It's easy — way too easy — to look at Brown's body of work as "joke stories." All you have to do is read a half dozen and then assume all the rest are the same. That would be a huge mistake, though, as well as a slap in the face of a writer who produced a number of quite serious stories. Oh, there's plenty to laugh about in just about all of them, don't get me wrong. Fredric Brown was possessed of a lively wit and a gleeful imagination that could take him (and his readers) to some pretty bizarre places.

But read him with a little care, a little attention, and you'll find that although he was perfectly capable of making you snort milk out your nose (like all good baggy-pants comics), he was at the same time giving you plenty of Idea to consider and wonder at.

Take, for example, one of his most famous short-shorts, "Answer." In 222 words — barely one single manuscript page — Brown sets us up and then delivers a punch line that is so far from rubber chickens and Whoopee cushions that they're almost in another Einsteinian plane of existence. You might laugh, but it's a shaky kind of laugh, not a laugh engendered by pig's-bladders and big red noses. Wit, not slapstick, and yet those 200+ words are as famous — and as misattributed and misquoted — as anything ever published in the field.

(All right, all right, if you want to know what I'm talking about, it's in his collection Angels and Spaceships, published by Dutton in 1954. Wanna know something else about this little jewel? It was a toss-off, an after-thought. When he assembled the book, he decided to write nine vignettes to run alternately with the eight reprints. So he just whipped them out. Most of them, although nowhere near as notorious as "Answer," will smack you in the gob just as hard. You know, if you kids spent as much time hanging out in used bookstores instead of playing those damn videogames all day long, I wouldn't need to do this.)

The plain reality is that, as is true of very few of his contemporaries (and almost none of his successors), Brown wrote stories which eventually passed into stfnal legend. I just asked Mary, my Significant Other, if she knew the story about the Galactic civilization who hooked up all their computers and asked the question, "Is there a God?" She thought for a moment, then asked, "Wasn't that 'The Final Answer' by Asimov?" She was referring to Asimov's "The Last Question," of course, which is the story practically everybody mistakes for the Brown. But not only did the Brown story precede Asimov's by two years, Asimov took more than 4500 words more to tell his tale. I can tell you from my own experience that over the past 35+ years, I've heard those two stories conflated more than any other two in the genre (or outside of it, for that matter), and 99% of the time the last line of the Brown is misattributed to the Asimov. I'm sure that both gentlemen ground their teeth about that.

Fredric Brown did write a lot of short-short stories. Nightmares and Geezenstacks is full of them, and there are more scattered about hither and yon in various other collections. Don't overlook his longer works, though. His mystery novels are a blast, especially The Screaming Mimi (filmed in 1958 and starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee), Night of the Jabberwock and Mrs. Murphy's Underpants, the title of which alone is reason enough to own.

His science fiction and fantasy novels, though...! The crazed (but controlled) madness of Martians, Go Home!, the recursive satire of What Mad Universe, in which the editor of a sf magazine is thrust into the bizarre and imaginary world of one of his readers; these are marvelous and intricately constructed books, filled with Brown's trademark dry wit, and are ultimately satisfying works that can be read and re-read for pleasure without effort.

Ah, but the exquisite and prescient The Lights in the Sky are Stars is where Brown outdoes himself. He managed, at a time when both the stfnal and mundane worlds were united behind the then-new Space Program, when those politicians and industrialists who supported it were seen as visionaries and their pronouncements seen as prophecies, Brown sat back, grinned and said, "Wanna bet?"

Lights was published in 1953, during Eisenhower's reign. There were plenty of stories out at the time — not to mention the decades before — in which space exploration was treated as the Brave New Future, as an epic struggle against all odds, as a heroic quest carried out by square jaws and snappy patter. And so it was considered by most of us, frankly (I still see it that way; I cry during the blast-off scene in Apollo 13 and I still get teary thinking about Grissom, Chaffe and White).

But in 1953, Fredric Brown had the courage, the all-out balls to write a novel about space in which the politicians and industrialists used the space program to their own ends, with a hero clearly not of the hero type (disabled and middle-aged), and - brace yourself — dares to show us an Earth in 1997 where the people are disillusioned with the whole thing. It is a romantic story, one in which its non-heroic protagonists are, at the end of the day, every bit as Heroic in their way as anyone Ed Hamilton or Doc Smith ever created.

What of Fredric Brown, the man, though? Well, I'll be honest. There isn't a whole lot written about him that I could get access to. A snippet here, a paragraph there, and the odd comment Brown made himself in this or that introduction. I know that he worked his day job as a proofer for years after he began selling regularly, just because he needed that steady paycheck to support his family.

I know from Fredrik Pohl's intro to Brown's "Hall of Mirrors" in Assignment in Tomorrow (Hanover House 1954) that he was "...a virtuoso on the Chinese Flute as well as on the typewriter..."; I know from long-time friend Robert Bloch's introduction to The Best of Fredric Brown that he was "Diminutive in stature, fine-boned, with delicate features partially obscured by horn-rimmed glasses and a wispy mustache..."; I know, from reading the various online references that he had a drinking problem which gave him significant difficulty later in life, that he liked cats, and that two of his biggest fans were (please sit down for this. No, I really mean it) Ayn Rand and Mickey Spillane. Don't know about you, but it's hard for me to wrap my head around that.

Isaac Asimov (he of that other computer-God yarn) wrote this about his colleague:

On December 4, 1948, there was a very pleasant Hydra Club meeting at Fletcher Pratt's place....Also present was Fredric Brown, a short, thin fellow who looked like a bookkeeper but who wrote excellent science-fiction short-shorts and amazingly good tough-guy detective novels....He was a chess buff and wanted badly to play me, even though I told him it was almost impossible for me to win....I had visited his apartment one time not long thereafter and he beat me rapidly in two games.

Brown made a number of friends in the field, not the least of whom was Mack Reynolds, a "red-diaper baby" whose father had run for president on the American Socialist Labor Party, and with whom Brown collaborated on a number of stories as well as a pretty damn good anthology, Science Fiction Carnival. Interestingly enough, he apparently didn't make friends with Damon Knight, seemingly slipping below the critic's radar; In Search of Wonder contains no mention of him.

When I mentioned to a gaggle of colleagues that I was doing a Past Masters bit on Fredric Brown, several of them admitted to a touch of confusion. Why him? He wasn't anything special, no innovator or creator of characters who have lived on long after he died. He didn't write best-sellers, he didn't win Nebulas and Hugos consistently or generate vast amounts of faanish adulation (although I maintain that he did his share of all that, just no more). Many of them made it clear that they thought his writing clumsy, or dated, or just not terribly good. Why him?

The glib answer is "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to." That's the glib answer, but it's not the best one, and it's as much a disservice to Brown as thinking he was nothing but a jumped-up class clown is.

The word "Master" isn't monolithic in definition. No, Fredric Brown wasn't the word-artist that, say, Alfred Bester was (although he clearly influenced Bester). He wasn't as adept at writing poetic prose as Zelazny or Delany. He didn't send planets crashing into suns like Hamilton, he didn't write intricately and complexly as Piper or Pangborn did.

But Fredric Brown was a Master Craftsman. There are damned few writers out there who wrote/write with as much facility, with as much economy. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't loud or showy or ostentatious. He didn't hide his considerable light under a barrel, mind you, but neither did he flaunt his talents; of course he didn't, that would have gotten in the way of the story.

Brown never let anything get in the way of the story. I'm convinced that this is one of the reasons why he wrote fewer novels than many of his contemporaries. Face it: a whole hell of a lot of novels out there, even the currently popular beach bricks, are short story ideas padded out to doorstop dimensions. Admit it, you've said the same thing to yourself more than once.

Fredric Brown, stated simply and concisely, told the story and then he STOPPED. If it took 7500 words to tell the story, that was hunky-dory. If it took 222, then that's what it took. And look at the results: would "Answer" have anywhere near the impact it does if he'd added more dialogue, exposition, or description? Not on your tintype, buckeroo.

Listen, flashers, assuming any of you are reading this (and props to you if you are), spend some time in the company of Brown and learn what can really be done with 1k words or fewer. And remember this: he wasn't trying to plow new ground, or prove a point, or be hip or any of that. He wasn't making jokes, or short-changing his readers (God, no!) or taking the easy way. He wrote the lengths he did not because it was The Newest Thing, but because he instinctively knew one of the toughest things any writer has to learn — it takes more skill to use less verbiage and still get the point across.


What follows is a much simplified and abstracted version of the remarkably complete (and I do mean complete) bibliography of Fredric Brown compiled at great effort by Phil Stephensen-Payne, a tireless and dedicated bibliographer who makes my minor attempts look...well, minor.  For my purposes here, I've left out poetry, non-fiction, and pretty much anything that isn't either a novel, collection, or short-story.  Any and all errors you see here are artifacts of my own unintentional biblio-clumsiness, so don't blame him.  If you have any interest in seeing the complete mishigoss, by all means contact me through HELIX SF and I'll put you in touch with Phil.  Stories marked with an asterisk (*) are short-shorts.  Collect the set.


































Unpublished Stories

Novels and Collections

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