Science fiction’s first Hugo, assassinating the PM Mantel-style, Stephen Fry’s podcast, and reader reaction: newsletter, January 31, 2020

February 3, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,617) on Friday, January 31, 2020.



Death, unfortunately, is much in mind this week as we hear the tragic news of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the others who perished in a helicopter accident earlier this week. I knew who Kobe Bryant was but not much else since I have not paid attention to professional basketball since I was very young. Many others, however, are much affected even though they did not know him personally; he was such a presence that his death is a loss for his fans.

The death that affected me more was that of Bob Shane, the last surviving member of the original Kingston Trio. I saw them in concert once, listened to their albums dozens of times, learned and played their music, and felt a real kinship to their art when I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shane and his friends brought us something new and fresh in music, even though they were often criticized and dismissed.

Just as Kobe Bryant’s fans will never forget his graceful moves on the basketball court, Kingston Trio fans will never forget the graceful and lively music that group made.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,576 subscribers and had a 28.3 percent open rate; 3 people unsubscribed.

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Hugo Gernsback and the invention of science fiction

When you write a really good mystery story or novel, you might get an Edgar Award. The source of the name of the award is as obvious as the name of the professional football team in Baltimore.

But what do you get if you write a really good science fiction story or novel? A Herb (H.G. Wells)? A Jules (Jules Verne)? A Mary (Mary Shelly)?

None of the above. You get a Hugo.

Why Hugo? The award from the World Science Fiction Convention is named for Hugo Gernsback, whom that association considers “the father of science fiction” literature.

The award seems all the more odd because Hugo Gernsback was by no measure a great writer — or even a very good one. Nor was he a particularly nice person.

Gernsback was born in Luxembourg in 1884, and after training in science in his native country and Germany, he immigrated to the United States when he was 20 years old. He had invented a dry cell battery that he felt he could sell more readily in the U.S. than in Europe. Gernsback found an emerging interest in — and market for — the new field of electronics, and he got into the business of importing electronic parts from Europe.

In 1908 he founded Modern Electronics magazine and developed a particular interest in the “wireless,” which we know today as radio. With that interest, Gernsback struck gold. He founded the Wireless Association of America which gathered 10,000 members in its first year. By 1912, he estimated, there were more than 400,000 people in America involved with this new medium of communication. He then started another magazine that eventually became Science and Invention, a publication that contained stories not only about scientific developments but fictional tales about where these developments might take us.

He called these stories scientifiction, but the term never caught on. Instead, the genre was known as science fiction. Gernsback made his own fictional contributions to the genre, but they are considered mediocre and insignificant.

Gernsback’s business dealings were shrewd and often questionable. He gained a reputation for paying his writers as little as possible and for sometimes not paying them at all. H.P. Lovecraft, for one, referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

But Gernsback’s genius and legacy were in recognizing the growing 20th-century appetite for the combination of scientific advancement and the human imagination.

Podcast recommendation: Stephen Fry’s Seven Deadly Sins

One of the most popular people of any stripe in the United Kingdom is Stephen Fry, an actor and writer who has been around for a long, long time. Fry is well-known to American audiences as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, played next to Fry’s good friend Hugh Laurie. Fry, among his many other assets, has a magnetic voice, and he is putting it to good use these days with a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

According to the podcast description:

I will take each one of the Seven Sins in turn, lay them out on the surgical table and poke, prod, pry and provoke in an attempt to try to anatomise and understand them; I hope and believe it will be, if nothing else, delicious fun and something of a change from the usual run of podcastery.

It is certainly a change and a delightful one, and I recommend you spent a half-hour a week with Fry and his thoughts. You may not agree with everything he has to say, but your time won’t be wasted.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Hilary Mantel, Margaret Thatcher, and the story of an assassination that didn’t happen

On a Saturday in the middle of 1983, author Hilary Mantel looked out of the bedroom window of her flat in Windsor, west of London, and saw something she never expected to see: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wandering around the garden of a nearby hospital. Thatcher was by herself, and Mantel could see her clearly.

Her first thought was that if she were an assassin, Thatcher would be dead.

“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” says Mantel, measuring each syllable, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.” (The Guardian)

As someone who grew up in a working-class town near Manchester, Mantel had a visceral dislike for Thatcher, a feeling she calls a “boiling detestation.”

Those thoughts and feelings embedded themselves in Mantel’s head. There was a story there, but it wasn’t immediately apparent. She decided to let the thought stew. That it did — for more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, she produced two volumes of a trilogy of historical novels on Thomas Cromwell, chancellor to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) won her Man Booker prizes (the top award for books in Great Britain). She is the only author to win the award twice.

As her readers were awaiting the final volume of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (available in March 2020), Mantel came out with a volume of short stories that took its title from the final story of the book, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014). The idea that had begun in those few moments in 1983 had finally come to fruition in a short story about a woman whose house had been invaded by IRA-like assassins who were waiting for Thatcher to emerge from her hospital stay.

Thatcher, who died in 2013, remains one of the most controversial of Britain’s politicians, and the Daily Telegraph’s decision to publish the story, followed by the revocation of that decision, caused a firestorm in 2014. The Guardian then published the story after the Telegraph dropped it, and you can read it at this link.

To her credit, Mantel wasn’t cowed by her critics. In fact, she poured gasoline on the flames with an interview in The Guardian that reiterated her feelings about Thatcher.

“When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life, but I am not either of those people in that room [the characters in the story]. I am standing by the window with my notebook.” And yet, the trigger is pulled.
“I never voted for her, but I can stand back and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen I suffered from her, but as a writer I benefited.” The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2014.

And Mantel, despite her personal feelings, admires Thatcher as a character:

“Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it,” Mantel admits. “Cromwell did too. But he was a negotiator and she detested consensus – she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old, and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”

Doug Glanville on baseball’s ‘existential crisis’

Baseball’s cheating scandal, which I mentioned in the newsletter a couple of weeks ago, seems to have come and gone in the relative blink of an eye. A couple of days of headlines, perpetrators punished, a few days of comment and commentary, and we’re done.

Let’s move on.

But some of us want to shout, “Hey, wait a minute! These guys CHEATED!”

This is a big deal. It happened in the World Series after all. The guys who won cheated. Doesn’t that deserve more investigation, more punishment, maybe even some soul-searching? Remember the Black Sox scandal? That happened a hundred years ago, and we’re still hearing about it.

It is, of course, to Major League Baseball’s corporate advantage to have this thing swept under the rug or treated like a one-off, but is that really honest? Does that do baseball the long-term good that it needs?

I can’t claim that Doug Glanville, former Philadelphia Phillie and now a college prof and superb commentator for the New York Times, feels as I do, but I did get some sense of deep disappointment when I read his recent column concerning the scandal.

What the Houston Astros did when they cheated calls into question the whole sense of fair play that every game, not just baseball, depends on.

Getting to the top in baseball is not just a matter of being on top, he writes.

 It has to matter how you get there, how you respected the road that was paved before you arrived and how you lay down a foundation for a future game. The pinnacle is meant to be a temporary space because of the spirit of competition and the revolving door of time, but it only is human when you prioritize the importance of ensuring that the game’s greatest achievements can only be acquired through fair play. Source: Opinion | Baseball’s Existential Crisis – The New York Times

If there isn’t fair play, nothing else matters.


Marcia D.: There is a new book out about Winston Churchill called The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.

Note: The book is scheduled for a Feb. 25 release. According to the Amazon blurb: “The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.”

Tod W.: I found the New York subway animation and story to be quite interesting.  I’ve never ridden the MTA.  I’m quite familiar with Bart, London’s Tube, and the Berlin U-Bahn.  None of these (or their maps) are as complex as New York’s appears to be.

Frank C.: I recommend Caimh McDonnell <> who writes mystery fiction based on a Dublin detective (fictional), which is very funny, and as a Dubliner I would say authentic. He is currently based in London but is Irish as his name reveals.

I knew Dr. Noel Browne by reputation. He was a principled politician crucified by the Catholic Church of his day and abandoned by his craw-thumping (google it) colleagues because he sought to provide free medical help for pregnant women. I don’t think there is a hell, but if I were god I would have created one specially for the bishops who ruined him and his scheme.

Nina L.: Mmm. This grammar rules theme, it has legs will run… 😀

Your reader says “(…) so long as the preposition isn’t at“… If I knew him, I’d ask him politely: would he explain how he deals with phrasal verbs…? Nobody ever mentions phrasal verbs, and unless we are going to kill them off altogether, very often the proposition cannot possibly go anywhere else that at the end of the sentence. As with my grandson’s favourite question while I’m driving him from school: “Nan, now what are you looking at…?” (the answer invariably being either the road, or the dashboard, or the rearview mirror, but he kept being puzzled seeing my eyes fleeting about…) 
Your other reader says it’s his job as an editor to get rid of as many words as possible… Very often, excessive sparsity impairs style, and I’ve always found prescriptiveness and inflexibility sworn enemies of creativity and inventiveness. 
As a fan of “indies”, I am often baffled by the way the lack of editing, or the excess thereof, can ruin a perfectly good story. It keeps reminding me that, copyrights and extortionate royalties rates aside, the role of a publisher in making a book a success, and often a masterpiece, is much more than just being a gatekeeper: it is, for instance, having at hand someone who knows, with all certainty, when that “but” and that “and” must stay put, their presence making the book a much better work of literature.

Vince V.: 1. I’m afraid free-sampling can become an addiction. I find it hard to finish a book because I’m reading the first pages of  so many.

2. Were you aware that Churchill was considered a person who stuttered when he was young? I contend this is what made him concentrate on his writing in his youth.
Freida M.: Thanks for the link to the website ‘stopyourekillingme’ website! I love a good mystery so I’m sure I will be using this site a great deal.
 Dan C.: As a young man stationed at Fort Monmouth, NJ, from 1975 to 1976 I would travel to NYC 2-3 weekends a month. I would not travel the subway alone after 10:00 pm or without three other soldiers after midnight. It was not safe. During the day and evening the subway was the easy and cost-effective way to travel across the city. I loved traveling by MTA subway or the Metro in DC.

Finally . . .

This week’s pen and ink: Walter Mosley (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton), historian (1834-1902)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Winston Churchill as a celebrity journalist, Irish mystery writers, and George Smith and the Epic of Gilgamesh: newsletter, January 24, 2020



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