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Waldrop, Howard

Entry updated 15 January 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1946-2024) US author, an important member of the Texas-based school of sf writers, much of whose early work was set in the American South. He began to publish work of genre interest with "Lunchbox" in Analog for May 1972, reportedly John W Campbell Jr's last (and perhaps least typical) discovery before he died with the tale still in manuscript. This was assembled with other early stories, some previously unpublished, as H'ard Starts: The Early Waldrop (coll 2023).

Waldrop's first novel, The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1974) with Jake Saunders, is set in a balkanized Post-Holocaust America after World War Three has snuffed out 90% of the world's population, and where the consequent loss of any sustaining Technology requires the use of legacy Weapons, including tanks, of World War Two vintage, as well as weaponry and cast from the cauldron of story of the Western, only one of the clusters of topoi Waldrop would sort through and exploit. Along with many stories, two longer tales would follow. Them Bones (1984) is an Alternate History tale featuring four alternate worlds knit together via Time Travel from a Dystopian future, part of a campaign to prevent World War Three. It may be a sign of Waldrop's seeming impatience with long-sustained narratives that the novel, brilliant segmentally, verges on congestion as a whole. Amerindian Mound Builders, Aztec Invaders, ancient Greek merchants in power-driven boats and much more: all take their turns, not always effectively. His only other novel (really a novella) is A Dozen Tough Jobs (1989), a tall tale retelling the labours of Hercules (see Mythology) in a late 1920s Mississippi setting; it says a little about ancient Greece and more about Black workers and rednecks; in one grimly effective transposition, Hell in the Cerberus episode becomes a Ku Klux Klan gathering. The similarity of the tale to the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), has occasioned some notice, particularly as one of the latter's characters is called Vernon T Waldrip.

Waldrop's long fiction is distinguished from the large mass of his shorter work (eighty or so tales, many substantial) by its relative orthodoxy, and by the fact that in those works he eschews his primary device: the use of meticulously researched Alternate History venues, articulated in story after story, that amount in total to a hilarious and sustained assault on the world that Genre SF writers were still inclined to take for granted as late as 1976, when he began to publish his best work. The Thought Experiments typical of post-1945 sf were based on the assumption that the future could be conceived as a continuation of the present, and that this continuous world could be imagined, inhabited, enjoyed, and rescued if necessary. After Guy Davenport and Kurt Vonnegut before him, Waldrop may be the most important sf writer of his time to have conveyed a sense that it was already too late, that the sf belief in the reasoned continuousness of the world was a nightmare from which we struggle to awake.

Most of Waldrop's best stories therefore repudiate the future, though this refusal was sometimes disguised by hilarity, and follow a similar pattern in doing so: known historical or imaginary figures are placed in surreally detailed alternate versions of the nineteenth or twentieth century, into venues often and improbably detached from any Jonbar Point that might suggest an argument about the history is being offered, and with no exit provided from the enveloping research-heavy bricolage of references, jokes, namechecked figures from various worlds, guest appearances, music tags. This amassing of detail is centripetal in its effect: a typical Waldrop story feels as though it had been placed in a Pocket Universe without egress, in a safety zone where its protagonists – there are often several per story – play with their lives. A Waldrop story is a ludic fiction (see Johan Huizinga) without nostalgia or an endgame. The worlds so depicted, being discontinuous from any argument about the course of history, are not genuine alternatives to its real outcomes, and do not therefore resemble any other Alternate Histories before his example became influential, nor do they resemble worlds created by genuinely nostalgic writers like Ray Bradbury or Jack Finney: worlds to which their characters return. They are tales of desiderium, of longing for worlds that should have existed but never did and never could.

Those few stories set in this world – like his best-known single fiction, The Ugly Chickens (in Universe 10, anth 1980, ed Terry Carr; 2009 chap), about how the dodo became extinct in the Deep South, which won a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award (though it is not in fact a tale of the fantastic) – tend to be tragic. Some other early tales hint at the obduracy of his late work. They include "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me" (1976 Nickelodeon #2); a wildly elaborate collaboration with Steven Utley, Custer's Last Jump (in Universe 6, anth 1976, ed Terry Carr; 1997 chap), an Alternate-History story in which powered flight has reached America in time for the Civil War and the Indian Wars; "Mary Margaret Road-Grader" (in Orbit 18, anth 1976, ed Damon Knight), an accomplished Post-Holocaust story in which Native American trials of strength are conducted with ageing bulldozers; "Dr Hudson's Secret Gorilla" (November 1977 Shayol), in which an injured man experiences Identity Transfer into the body of an ape (see Apes as Human); and "Ike at the Mike" (June 1982 Omni), where Eisenhower is a jazz musician working with Louis Armstrong, and Boris Karloff is the English ambassador in Washington.

Later tales, some of them novellas, tend to sharpen the contrast between the pocket universe and the world of history outside. Iconic figures proliferate – many dozens of them, some real, some from Pulp and Comics sources – probably more of them than any other sf author has ever introduced, even Philip José Farmer. Most are figures beyond the purview of this encyclopedia, though writers as diverse as Charles Dickens, Alfred Jarry and Nevil Shute appear variously. Jarry is the main protagonist of "Fin de Cyclé" (in Night of the Cooters, coll 1990), appearing along with Alfred Dreyfus, Georges Méliès, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, the Douanier Rousseau, Eric Satie, Emile Zola and others in a Steampunk reconstruction of fin de siècle Paris as Albert Robida had envisioned it decades earlier (and later repudiated as history darkened around him). The title story, "Night of the Cooters" (April 1987 Omni), is a Western featuring an Invasion based on H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898).

You Could Go Home Again (1993 chap) is a deeply counter-factual tale in which Thomas Wolfe and Fats Waller, who have survived past their real deaths, collaborate on a great zeppelin (see Airships; Pax Aeronautica) that sails through a reality where World War Two never happens. "Heart of Whitenesse" (in New Worlds, anth 1997, edited by David Garnett) solarizes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (book publication 1902) as Christopher Marlowe sails an ice-skiff up the Thames to Oxford, where he meets Johann Faustus just before (in this world) he dies. In A Better World's in Birth! (2003 chap) the map of late nineteenth-century Europe is rewritten after Richard Wagner heads a successful revolution in 1849 Leipzig. "The King of Where-I-Go" (in The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On) / The King of Where-I-Go, coll 2006 chap), a rare Time Travel story, seems to argue that a remembered life – the tale may be autobiographical – can only make livable sense if altered from what happened in the real world.

It took a surprisingly long time for any collections to appear, beginning with Howard Who?: Twelve Outstanding Stories of Speculative Fiction (coll 1986) and All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past (coll 1987), assembled as Strange Things in Close-Up: The Nearly Complete Howard Waldrop (omni 1989) [for further reshufflings of these titles, plus A Dozen Tough Jobs and Night of the Cooters: More Neat Stuff (omni 1991), see Checklist]. Later collections include Dream Factories and Radio Pictures (coll 2001 ebook), Heart of Whitenesse (coll 2005); and the Howard Waldrop Reader sequence, whose two volumes – Things Will Never Be the Same: A Howard Waldrop Reader: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005 (coll 2007) and Other Worlds, Better Lives: A Howard Waldrop Reader: Selected Long Fiction 1989-2003 (coll 2008) – assemble about a quarter of his oeuvre. Collaborations with Utley and others were assembled in Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations (coll 2003).

Because of the Humour of these tales (before their often shattering conclusions), and because he often introduced them through live readings at Conventions, Waldrop was sometimes thought of as a kind of court jester of sf. This may be true as far as it goes. In the end, however, he more closely resembles in his work the version of the Fool found in the later plays of William Shakespeare, who makes us laugh as we learn truths we do not wish to know, and who himself may perish. In 2021 Waldrop received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC/PN]

see also: Gothic SF; Hollow Earth; Lost Worlds; Omni; SF Music.

Howard Waldrop

born Houston, Mississippi: 15 September 1946

died Austin, Texas: 14 January 2024



Howard Waldrop Reader

individual titles

  • The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974) with Jake Saunders [early version appeared July-August 1973 Galaxy as "A Voice and Bitter Weeping": pb/Dean Ellis]
  • Them Bones (New York: Ace Books, 1984) [in the publisher's third Science Fiction Special series: pb/Marvin Mattleson]

collections and stories


previous versions of this entry

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