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Hank Davis
conducted by Jim Minz
 
November 2007

Henry T. Davis, Baen Senior Editor, was born in the heart of coal country in the tiny town of Benham, KY, (population under 2,000) in 1944. Hank has always been a Fan with a capital F. Whether it's science fiction, mystery, jazz or classical music, he brings insight, knowledge and wit to those subjects which are his passion.

Hank first became known in sf circles as an active letter and article writer in various zines, before having stories published in both Frederik Pohl's If and John W. Campbell's Analog in 1968. After selling several more stories, including one ill-fated tale to Harlan Ellison for The Last Dangerous Visions, Hank bounced back and forth between Kentucky and New York City on various jobs, including a brief stint at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. So how did such a talented, knowledgeable man fall in with the odd lot over at Baen Books? Well, we'll let him tell you in his own words . . .

"Like they say, it's not what you can do, it's who you know. And it happened that I knew Toni Weisskopf during a period when I was surviving by a series of temp jobs. I had moved back to New York in 1987 to start a job with the Post Office, pardon me, Postal Service, and I was screwed out of that job, then I was screwed out of a second fall-back job with the so-called Service. (If terrorists ever blow up the New Dorp Post Office in Staten Island, I'll have a hard time condemning them.) Toni was working at Baen and had me come in several times over a year for various temporary jobs, ranging for redoing all the book files to writing cover copy and extracting 'teaser' pages for the front of paperbacks from the manuscripts. After about a year of this, on and off, Jim Baen said, to me, 'Do you want a job?' 'Who do I have to kill for you?' I said. And it was so. (No, I didn't kill anybody. Yet.) Since, both recently and during the five years I was in New York in the 1970s, I had darkened the doors of employment agencies for sf editing (and just plain editing) jobs before, handing in resumes which vanished into a Great Silence, and had almost never gotten past those frigging agencies to even find out which publisher the job was with, this sneaking-in-the-back-door approach had an air of unreality about it, and it took a while to get over the feeling that I would suddenly be told, 'Just fooling! You're not working here after all.' After eighteen years at Baen, I don't have that feeling any more. Not every day, anyway . . . "

As for his favorite Jim Baen anecdote, here's "one that won't get Baen Books sued, or cause Toni to wring my neck. Jim pops out of his private office into the communal office, and says to me, the only other male in sight 'Hank, I've figured out what's missing from the office. We need a pussyfor.' There's silence from me and the two or three females in the office, and Jim prods me to answer. 'Well, Hank, what do you think of us getting a pussyfor.'

"By merest chance, I am unusually awake that day, and ask, 'How do you spell "pussyfor?"

"Jim hurrumphs a bit, then says, 'Just the way it sounds.'

"I say, 'Is this something like the routine in high school, where you pick a victim and say to them, "I have a pet rabbit, and it's a lot of trouble because it'll only eat updoc," and the victim is liable to say, before he can think, "What's updoc?"'

"Jim did some more hurrumphing, then said, 'You were supposed to ask "What's a pussyfor?" and then I would have said, "You mean, you don't know?"' And then he exclaimed, 'Dammit, it worked on [David] Drake!' Then he hurrumphed some more and left. (Jim's hurrumphing actually took the form of saying what sounded to me like "frakka, frakka, frakka.") That's probably my favorite Baenecdote (that I can safely use, anyway; maybe) because I outfoxed Jim, which seldom happened."

As for the evolution of both Baen and his own career, "Is this a career? I just stumbled into it without intention. Of course, when 'career' is a verb, it means headlong rapid motion, usually uncontrolled. That sounds about right. Evolution is probably the right word to use, since evolution is random and unplanned, and it gets on its metaphorical horse and rides off in all directions. That describes not just my career (if I have one), but my life in general.

"Evolution is probably a good word to use about Baen, too, since the e-word involves lots of failed experiments that end up fertilizing the soil because they didn't work out. Jim Baen liked to try lots of different things, and not surprisingly, some of them were less than successful (novelizations of computer games, which Baen was doing ahead of the big time publishers, turned out to be a passing fad, for example), while others were the hottest thing since the opposable thumb, such as shared universe books (which Jim tried out while still at Ace, when Baen Books was just a twinkle in his eye), selling electronic versions of books online, or publishing military sf (at a time when most sf editors, at the thought of anything military, would go, 'Oh, that's so yucky!' and have a sudden attack of the vapors). And the idea that someone writing hard-core space opera could have a string of New York Times best sellers? Doubtful—but somebody forgot to tell David Weber that. Plenty of Jim Baen's experiments have survived the natural selection test."

Hank's love affair with sf began "very early, and you can't blame TV. (I was in the third grade before TV was available.) Missed Captain Video, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, all the classics. Nor movies, either, since there were hardly any sf movies being made in the early 1950s, though the Commando Cody serial Radar Men from the Moon and the double feature of Rocketship and Mars Attacks the World (cut-down feature versions of the first two Flash Gordon serials—and damn the Skiffy Channel for what they've done to Flash!) did a lot to cement the addiction that I already had. Instead, 'twas comic books and A.E. Van Vogt that ruined my life. My parents would read comic books to me before I started first grade (something which I later realized was markedly indulgent of them), a side effect of which was that I could read a little by that time (there was none of that nonsense called kindergarten available locally, incidentally), and right away the scientifictional funny books were the most interesting. I still have a vague memory of Donald Duck piloting a rocket to the Moon, but there were other comic books with genuine monkeyboys having interplanetary adventures. What's interesting here is that the sf comics which I dimly recall are ones that comics fans don't seem to know about—they're neither DC (Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures) nor EC (Weird Science and Weird Fantasy). I've sometimes described what I can remember of those comics to rabid collectors—and they have no idea what they were. Maybe I grew up in a parallel world. But I digress. . . .

"Sometimes, I would see prozines on a magazine rack and, bewitched by the covers, try to get my mother to buy them for me, but she was of the opinion that 'You won't read that—it doesn't have any pictures.' Her reluctance may actually have been based more on the outfits that the babes on the cover were almost wearing, and that might be why when Fantastic Story Magazine, a reprint pulp from those splendid folks who were also bringing out Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories (and which is not to be confused with a horde of other magazines with "Fantastic" in the title), reprinted Van Vogt's Slan complete in one issue and I saw it, with the nifty Alex Schomburg cover which had nary a babe in sight, she caved in. (I won't describe the cover, since you can see it here:

http://www.noosfere.com/showcase/IMAGES/fsq_summer1952.jpg

I don't recall the Virgil Finlay illustrations making any impression on me, but the story sure did. It helped that the protagonist started out as a rotten kid, like me (well, except for the extra heart and the tendrils) and he was doing really cool stuff, such as whipping out a weapon and blasting a bunch of evial grown-ups when they had him cornered, which was the scene in Slan that stuck most vividly in my memory until I got Triad (three novels by Van Vogt) from the SF Book Club six or seven years later (which felt like decades later in subjective time) and was able to reread the novel. So, there I was, a naive second grader, hooked on the hard stuff.

"I also remember the first issue of If that I saw (third grade by that time), but it wasn't love at first sight. Little did I know that over a decade later my first published sf story would appear in the same magazine, though under a different regime. (Being an "If first" is probably the only way that I can be compared to Larry Niven.) But at the time, I saw the cover, which had a space-suited man and woman who seemed to be walking in space, and I was deeply offended, since everybody knows you can't walk on nothingness. (Here's the cover: http://www.noosfere.com/showcase/images/IF_5211.jpg) That shows that I had a hard science bent from the beginning, though I was weak on the idea of symbolic art. This was years before real-world astronautics introduced the term 'space walk' into the public consciousness. True to form, I intensely disliked the term the first time I heard it—and still do.

"I'm a bit more vague on what the second sf novel I read was. It was either Chad Oliver's Mists of Dawn (one of the Winston sf juveniles, which the school library had acquired—and if Mists of Dawn was the second, then Lester del Rey's Marooned on Mars, from the same library, was the third) or Clifford D. Simak's City, in the Permabooks paperback. Loved the fight with the cave bear in the former, and thought the ants taking over the world was very scary in the latter, though it didn't keep me from having an ant farm later on. (Wonder if the PETA nut cases are opposed to ant farms?) .

"After that, it was downhill all the way.

"The sf writers who've had the most impact on me are too numerous to mention, though I'll mention Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, Murray Leinster, Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Edgar Pangborn, and, of course, Robert A. Heinlein. However, I never consciously tried to write like any of them—I didn't think I could pull it off. But they have had a strong influence on what I think of as good sf, and what sf is capable of, which is what an editor should be looking for.

"One non-sf author who had an influence on me was Raymond Chandler, but he did it second-hand. I had read sf authors—Keith Laumer, in particular, but also George O. Smith, for example, in Highways in Hiding—who imitated Chandler's style, and I imitated the imitations in my first person Analog story without realizing who I was cribbing from. I copied Chandler's style again a few years later in a story I sold to F&SF, but by then I had read The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, Farewell, My Lovely, etc. and this time the imitation was conscious.

"As an editor, one thing I will mention is that I appreciate unsigned form rejection slips much more than I did when I received them. Sometimes, I've rejected a manuscript with a note explaining a few of the things wrong with it—and it comes back with changes by the hopeful author, fixing the things I mentioned, and now it's even worse. And the things I mentioned weren't the only flaws, they were just the easiest ones to point out. I've heard Ben Bova on a panel make this same complaint.

"As a writer, if you can call someone a writer who only sold five stories to sf publications (one of which has remained unpublished for more than half my lifetime—thanks for all the fish, Harlan!), I found that I was turning out three or four stories for each one that sold, which didn't keep my enthusiasm at full speed ahead. To keep going I would have had to be more determined than I was. Call me wimp.

When asked to choose between sf and Diana Rigg and The Avengers, "that's kind of like asking which I like better, my left or my right, er, ah . . . hand. Both sf and DR (and the Avengers episodes with DR), and also music serve the purpose of making life a bit less unbearable for a short time. Also, sf and DR (but probably not music; and never mind the episodes of The Avengers in this case) raise the possibility that life could be much better than it actually is. (Not that I expect the possibility to become reality, of course.) Having said that, I have to say that my enthusiasm for sf has waned drastically in the last few years, probably as a side effect of getting old, though it doesn't help that most of my favorite writers are dead or have quit writing. (A statement that's also true of most of my favorite jazz musicians—though Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver are still around and pounding the ivory. Hang in there, guys!) My enthusiasm for DR hasn't waned at all, in spite of her now being in her late sixties. In fact, if she were physically present instead of just an image on a TV screen, my enthusiasm would probably become downright embarrassing. After consideration, DR wins over sf. It's hard to beat a goddess."

Hank goes on to discuss the recent Cordwainer Smith collection from Baen, When the People Fell (followup to last year's We the Underpeople) "'When the People Fell' is a story that I enjoyed when I read it in Galaxy aeons ago, but it's one of Cordwainer Smith's lesser stories. I should say that Jim Baen came up with the titles of We the Underpeople and When the People Fell, (even though the 'people' in When the People Fell aren't Underpeople). Left to my own devices, I would probably have called the first book something like The Saga of Lost C'Mell, after the story 'The Ballad of Lost C'Mell,' using the name of the most memorable recurrent character in the stories in the book, and would have called the second book The Game of Rat and Dragon, which is a great title, and also the title of the first Cordwainer Smith story I read, again in a 1950s Galaxy, and which is still my favorite C.S. story. As a runner-up title, I might have called the second Smith compilation, Scanners Live in Vain, after Smith's first published sf story. (A friend of mine, George Wells, one of those rare sf fans who really is a wit, suggested that I could have called it Scanners Live at Baen . . .)

"If I had to make a movie of a Cordwainer Smith story, and doing an anthology movie (such as Dead of Night or the Twilight Zone movie), or shooting the novel Norstrilia were both ruled out, I'd pick either 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town' or 'The Lady Who Sailed the Soul.' Out of sheer laziness, since the first story has about half a zillion characters, I'll take a shot at the less densely populated second story. Even if the robotic lady aristocrat in 'Clown Town' should obviously be played by Diana Rigg.

"And now we have a problem. As with my favorite authors and jazz musicians, most of my favorite actors are dead or very long in the tooth, but let's see, now . . . Mona Muggeridge, mother of Helen America, is described as a bony, pompous blonde, so obviously she should be played by Meryl Streep, assuming she would take a part so small. Helen is 'a deadly serious little brunette,' and is also about 18. I'm handicapped by not having noticed any striking teenage actresses lately, so I'll mention a couple who are actually too old for the part, but that's what makeup departments are for. One is Lexa Doig, who played the A.I. in the TV show Andromeda, and who recently turned 34. Another possibility is Erica Durance, who plays Lois Lane on Smallville, and who recently turned 29. I'm tempted to suggest Rachael Stirling, who is Diana Rigg's daughter and recently turned 30, but I've seen too little of her in action to know if her mom's talent was successfully transmitted to the next generation. As for Mr. Grey-No-More, I'll pick Johnny Depp to fill that bill. Lords of the Instrumentality are supposed to be scary, so, since Boris Karloff is no longer with us, let Dennis Hopper play Wait, the presiding Lord of the Instrumentality. It's a small part, but he's liable to steal the show, so for balance I vote for Patrick McGoohan to chew up all the scenery in sight as the senior medical officer. And that's all the main characters. The minor ones can be played by promising newcomers. And, if the story is actually filmed as a two-hour movie, the minor parts will likely have to be enlarged, which (unlike with 'When the People Fell') should be possible without damaging the original story. Bernard Herrmann is no longer with us, so somebody offer Danny Elfman a lot of money to do the score. I have no idea who'll direct. Would Spielberg be interested? (If he could keep from messing with the script.)"

As for what innovation he'd like to see in his lifetime, Hank says, "Faster than light travel would be good, but that may not be possible, ever. So, a better bet would be a field drive, or something similar, that could propel spacecraft without reaction mass. Unless some finagle factor made the energy requirement far more than for a rocket, that development would get us out of mere spaceflight and into real, live space travel, with colonies all over the solar system, and all our eggs wouldn't be in one basket anymore, and likely to be wiped out by asteroid impact, comet collision, solar flares, gamma ray bursts, and all the other jollies the universe has up its sleeve to remind us that it's not a nice neighborhood and mother nature is a blue-ribbon bitch. Anti-gravity would be nice, too, but there're reasons (from general relativity) for thinking that it's as impossible as FTL, while a field drive is still in a gray area, and some breakthrough in physics might make it possible. I'm talking about anti-gravity in the sense of nullifying weight here. Some people use anti-gravity to mean turning gravity into repulsion, and there's more dispute about whether or not general relativity would forbid that, or at least there used to be. Some physicists—not all, and probably a minority—have argued that anti-matter would be repelled by a gravity field around ordinary matter, for example. Others counter that anti-matter wouldn't have negative mass, so it should be attracted by gravity just like ordinary matter, according to (you guessed it) general relativity which holds that gravity is indistinguishable from the inertial effects of acceleration. . ."

And if he were allowed to travel back in time? "Just one trip? That's hard. If expense is no object (and I'm sure that if time travel were possible, the further back you go, the more energy it would take) there are the three big mass extinctions, and I'd be tempted to see what happened, and if any of the current theories (in order from earliest to last, a gamma ray burst, an enormous volcanic eruption, and a falling asteroid) are correct. From behind a very effective personal force screen, of course. Much more recently, there's the Tunguska explosion, and that would be cool to watch (turn the force screen up to full power, first), and maybe see just what caused it: something conventional like a meteor, an asteroid, a comet; or maybe one of the more exotic explanations (black hole, alien spaceship). Or maybe I should go for culture, and drop in to hear Liszt or Chopin playing their own music (with the Lisztster, I might still need that personal force screen, if I had a front row seat, to keep from being trampled by his hordes of adoring female fans). Or I might go back less than a century and sneak into Rachmaninoff's house when he and Vladimir Horowitz did a run-through of the duo-piano version of his Symphonic Dances for a group of friends. (I'll need a good cover story, or the personal screen will have to have an invisibility setting.) And I'd be tempted to see what happened on the Marie Celeste when its crew disappeared. But if trips back through time are one to a customer, the obvious choice would be to go back about 37 years and head to New York, where Diana Rigg was appearing in Abelard & Heloise, with the Rigg at one point in the play being nude onstage. Wow! If I were allowed to spend a day there, I'd aim for a Saturday, to take in a matinee and an evening performance. Isaac Asimov got to see that play. Moshe Feder got to see it. Even my rotten kid brother got to see it. But I missed it. And no personal force screen would be necessary, though a pacemaker might be a good idea, in case my heart couldn't stand the, ah, stimulation. On the other hand, how else would I ever be likely to die happy?"

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