Why Editors Matter: David Hartwell’s Extraordinary Timescape Books

Avid SF readers may know the late David G. Hartwell (10 July 1941–20 January 2016) as one of Tor Books’ senior editors. Or perhaps he may be familiar as the editor and co-editor (with Kathryn Cramer) of Year’s Best SF and Years Best Fantasy, not to mention many other themed anthologies. They might be aware of his role with the New York Review of Science Fiction. Con-goers might well remember his striking fashion sense. His technicolor shirts, waistcoats, and jackets were of eye-searing brilliance and contrast.

Thanks to Asimov’s repeated admonitions that editors matter, I began at an early age to pay attention to the humans responsible for the books I consumed en masse. When I knew which editors were behind the works I liked, I would follow them from company to company. Thus I first became aware of Hartwell as the person behind Pocket Books’ remarkable Timescape imprint1.

Timescape licensed its name from Gregory Benford’s novel of the same name. Ironically, Timescape the novel was never reprinted to my knowledge by Timescape the imprint, although two other Benford novels (Against Infinity and Across the Sea of Suns) would be published by the imprint. Between 1981 and 19842, Hartwell published at least 171 titles (perhaps there were more; this is my best count). Some were original to the line, others were reprints. Many, like Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, are still well known, and aside from the checklist at the end of this article—note to self: include checklist—I will not dwell on them. Instead, here are some of the less well-known but still worthy works published under the Timescape imprint:

Robert Stallman’s career was cut short by his demise at age fifty. As a result his body of work was not large and the majority of it appeared after his death. The three volumes of The Book of the Beast (The Orphan, The Captive, and The Beast) tell the story of a shapeshifter trapped in a human society it cannot comprehend. Stallman’s evocative prose reveals the Beast as something more than animal.

Vonda N. McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories is an eleven-story single-author collection. Contents include the Nebula winner “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (expanded into the novel Dreamsnake), Nebula nominee “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn,” and Hugo nominees Fireflood and “Aztecs.” “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” and its companion “Wings” are enthralling stories about an alien race forced to flee its world. As far as I know those are the only two stories in this sequence, although I suppose I can hope that McIntyre will someday revisit the setting. Even without Mountains and “Wings,” Fireflood and Other Stories would be by far my favourite McIntyre collection.

S.P. Somtow is perhaps best known today as a composer and artistic director of the Bangkok Opera. As Somtow Sucharitkul, he was the author of speculative fiction ranging from the bleak to the absurd. Starship & Haiku is the latter, a tale of humans and cetaceans after a calamitous war has swept the Earth. If it is not dark enough for you, Somtow’s four book Inquestor series (novels Light on the Sound, Throne of Madness, The Darkling Wind and the collection Utopia Hunters) is a bleak examination of a galaxy dominated by an autocracy whose claims to compassion fail to conceal that they utterly lack such a quality.

Cherry Wilder’s vivid, dense Second Nature tells the story of humans long castaway on an alien world, surviving as best they can despite local conditions. The news that objects have been seen falling from the sky raises hopes that they will finally recontact their lost kin. Hope is not enough; the Dator of Rhomary must investigate in person to determine if starships have returned to the exoplanet.

Hilbert Schenck’s A Rose for Armageddon is the often oblique tale of scientists in a decaying near-future. They hope against hope that their work might prove useful. They are focused on the future; they are oddly unclear about just what their pasts may have been. Their ultimate fate is shaped by the blanks in their memories.

David Langford’s The Space Eater is a gallows-humour-rich military SF novel whose protagonist is the unfortunate beneficiary of advanced medical technology that makes it nearly impossible for him to die. Not permanently, at any rate. This durability earns him a role as Europe’s ambassador to a distant world populated by an unreasonable population of American ancestry—a population hell-bent on reviving the research that transformed America into a blasted wasteland.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty (first published in the 1970s) is the author’s retelling of the well-known tale of Beauty and the Beast. Forced by her father’s poor judgment to live with a hermit beast in rustic isolation, Beauty discovers a new life quite unlike the one she expected. Disney fans take note: there are no singing teacups in this version.

What happened to Timescape, you ask? Lamentably, many of the line’s books appear to have won critical accolades but not sales. Why this was I cannot say; many of the books in the line are still in print so it is not that there was no audience for the books. The Market is a cruel, capricious god and many worthy activities have been killed by it. Timescape is just one example.

If you’d like track down all of the books published under the Timescape imprint, here is a (possibly complete) list, courtesy of Marty Halpern.

 


1: Hartwell’s career predated Timescape, but for some reason I didn’t think to check who, for example, Signet’s editors were. I was an inconsistent obsessive.

2: Rather annoyingly, the imprint first appeared the month I turned twenty, which mean no matter how much I like some of the books, they are just slightly too late for my Because My Tears Are Delicious To You reviews of books I read as a teen. Curse you, linear nature of time!

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

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