“I’ve only read about three sci-fi books, and none of them were yours,” Bill Ransom remembers warning science-fiction legend Frank Herbert before they set about their first official collaboration, a novel called “The Jesus Incident.”
Ransom, about a quarter-century Herbert’s junior, was already an accomplished poet in his own right — and had been a Boeing factory worker, firefighter, medic, and host of eclectic professions. Herbert knew Ransom’s skills and style, both from reading his work and the many afternoons they’d spent visiting over coffee as neighbors in Port Townsend.
“He just saw it as equal. Different genres, that’s all,” Ransom said.
But, Herbert, the creator of the “Dune” franchise accounted for about half his publisher’s profits.
“They didn’t want to impinge on that. At all. And this was dangerous — it looked dangerous to them,” Ransom said.
In 1979, when “The Jesus Incident” was published, sci-fi authors didn’t collaborate. Or at least, only one author’s name wound up on the cover of the book.
The publishers offered a full 50 percent more as an advance if the novel were published with only Herbert’s name.
“If money had mattered to (Herbert) he would have become a banker long before that,” Ransom said. “He just laughed and said, ‘You know, Ransom, this is going to be a big book. We’ll make it back in sales.’ ”
“The Jesus Incident” was remarkable at the time for the two names on its cover, but also for the immersive, character-driven story. It explores themes of racism and religious violence, all in an alien world ruled over by an artificially intelligent space ship. The novel and its two sequels, “The Lazarus Effect” and “Ascension Factor,” have recently been re-released as one compilation, “The Pandora Sequence,” and are available in print and as e-books.
For the Grayland author, it’s another opportunity to share the fruits of a singular collaboration.
“The idea of these kind of seeing daylight again — the way I look at it, I’ve already been paid for them,” Ransom said. “And I’m glad that they can continue to be read. That’s why I’m a writer.”
Both Herbert and Ransom were born in Puyallup, and they knew of one another through their families long before they met. When Ransom was studying at the University of Washington, he read a satire piece for an alternative newspaper written by Herbert under the pen name H. Bert Frank, and became an immediate fan.
Later, when they both moved to Port Townsend, Herbert to work on his National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and Ransom founding the arts education non-profit Centrum, they got in touch.
“I just dropped him a postcard, to H. Bert Frank. All it said was, ‘I write in the mornings but the coffee’s always on,” Ransom said.
Two days later, Herbert knocked on his door.
“High noon, with a coffee cup. And that was it. We had at least coffee every day for years,” Ransom said.
When the opportunity came up to write a series in Herbert’s Destination: Void universe, they were ready to collaborate.
The publisher objected strenuously.
“He insisted that this means that Frank Herbert has dementia and has to bring some young writer on board to write his books for him, and a fair number of people would have thought that at that time,” Ransom said. “From my side it was, here’s some unknown young guy taking over Frank Herbert’s career. There was all kinds of talk about how would readers accept this.”
“To my knowledge there is only one novel at that time that ever had two names on the cover, and that was ‘The Ugly American’ by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. And their publisher, their contract had been for a non-fiction book about Vietnam,” Ransom said.
As it turned out, he said, “It never came up. In any review, in any panel at a sci-fi convention. … The only thing that happened is that immediately, the next year there were others.”
They typed their drafts on old typewriters, onto carbon copies.
“Anybody that was strangled in or around Port Townsend, we would have been the suspects,” Ransom quips. “Very strong fingers.”
Informal assignment notes were passed back and forth with pages for various tasks.
“We’d take parts and role play some things, and it would be like, ‘OK Frank, you’ve got him.’ So we’d just go and do it,” Ransom recalled of writing various characters and passages. “Our main agreement was that neither of us would ever demand something that would jeopardize the friendship.”
One character threw a wrench in that system. Spoiler alert: One character had outlived her contribution to the story, and they decided she needed to be killed off. But both had grown somehow attached to her, although she wasn’t particularly likeable in the story.
“It almost took us to the last rewrite to kill this woman, because neither of us wanted to do it. … We kept on a blank sheet — it was on Frank’s stack — ‘Kill Rachel.’ Then next time it would be on my stack, ‘Kill Rachel.’ Then I got to thinking about Daniel, and we sent her to the front and she never came back.”
The biblical reference to Daniel lusting after his soldier’s wife seems fitting in a book steeped in a fictional religion. The series focuses on an artificially intelligent ship that demands its passengers worship it, creating a culture and distributing resources largely around the worship.
Collaboration isn’t for everyone, Ransom said, but it adds something to a project one writer can’t achieve on his own.
“We had essentially become this third author that was neither one of us but had attributes of both and was really its own person,” Ransom said. “And it was fun. I thought, better.”
The final entry in the trilogy was completed after Herbert’s death in 1986, presenting Ransom with the challenge of recapturing that third person on his own.
“Trying to have Frank’s humorous little quips coming in over my shoulder, if possible, but the language of that third guy, who had a different language than I used habitually, and a different language than Frank used habitually and a completely different syntax …” Ransom trails off briefly, shaking his head.
“Frank would have approved” of the result, he said.
At 67, Ransom could fit into the Baby Boomer generation, but he’s specific on that point: He’s a War Baby. He remembers meeting his father, a Navy sailor and middleweight boxer, when he came home from World War II.
In his autobiographical poetry collection, “The Woman and the War Baby,” Ransom describes their first meeting, replete with the sights and sounds as seen through a child’s eyes.
“He looks down, laughs.
‘So this is the boy,’ he says. He sticks his hand out, his big boxing hand. ‘Glad to meet you.’
My Mom slaps his arm ‘You’re kidding! He’s your son.’ She turns to me and motions me toward him. ‘Come here and give your father a kiss.’
He’s very big and has the whisky smell that Grandma hates. His hand on my chest. I stop. Then he reaches his boxing hand out again.
‘Men don’t kiss men,’ he says. ‘Men shake hands.’ ”
Poetry wasn’t around when Ransom was growing up, he said, but “we were a big storytelling family.”
They didn’t have television, instead enjoying radio and books. He liked the poetry he studied at school, “But those were all dead people. So I didn’t even think that there might be living poets.”
Then he picked up “Death of the Kapowsin Tavern” by Richard Hugo, which he thought was a history book.
“And I opened it up and it’s poetry. And it’s poetry about all these places around (Puyallup). Fishing the Stillaguamish River, and on and on,” Ransom recalled.
He was stunned. “You mean you can write about stuff like this?” he said with a laugh.
He had practical jobs along with writing, a firefighter, paramedic, Boeing factory worker, carpenter, medic in the Guatamalan Civil War, CPR instructor — the list seems to be endless. He recently retired as Dean of Curriculum at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
“Live long enough and stay broke enough and eventually you’ll do everything,” Ransom said of his eclectic career.
Eventually, he was able to leave off even the odd side jobs.
“I was finding that I never had to do that anymore, I was making more money at writing. Frank Herbert used to say that money is only good for giving you more time to do more writing. Anything that gets in the way of that is a bad thing,” he said.
His poetry has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
“There’s still a few things that come out that what most of us who were serious about the genre would call rubber science … but the genre became more character-driven,” Ransom said. “Frank, I think, was one of the driving forces behind that.”
“One of the things we talked about was what does science-fiction do that other kinds of writing doesn’t do. He said it’s the only one that directly addresses what does it mean to be human.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, sci-fi was marked by “lots of cool gadgets,” Ransom observed.
“It was all pretty fast, and readers were very forgiving of style.”
By the time Ransom started his journey in the genre, it was growing into real literature with attempts at real or at least plausible science.
“Solid science within those stories became more of a goal, so the issue is how do humans solve a dilemma, not how does technology solve a dilemma,” he said.
He recalls the 1975 novel “Dhalgren” by Samuel Delaney as an example.
“It begins in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of a sentence. It’s not your grandmother’s science fiction,” Ransom said with a grin.
It’s easy to see why the dark, reflective piece appeals to Ransom the poet. It opens:
“to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.”
Ransom said he’s still seeing strong, character-driven work in science fiction, particularly the cyberpunk sub-genre, which focuses on advanced science and technology coupled with radical social change or a breakdown in social order. The film “The Matrix” was inspired by the cyberpunk “Sprawl” trilogy by William Gibson.
“That hasn’t run its course yet because of all the different ways we’re figuring out of connecting with the brain,” Ransom said.
It’s easy to stay inspired by the incredible progress in science. Ransom is particularly curious about EEG cap experiments, where a person wears the cap which measures their brainwaves, then uses them to control devices. It sounds like science fiction all on its own.
“I’m pretty interested in science, and I see all this stuff happen, and I just look at it and say, ‘What if?’ ”