Jack Dann, et al,
The Fiction Factory
(Golden Gryphon, 2005)

Jack Dann may not be as well known as some of the authors with whom he's collaborated -- Michael Swanwick, Barry N. Malzberg, Gardner Dozois -- but the story introductions in The Fiction Factory make it clear that his was a critical role in the collaborative writing process. Each of the stories in this terrific collection is introduced by all of the authors involved in the story's creation. And, as much as the stories themselves, it is these introductions that make The Fiction Factory an outstanding book. They provide a window into the process by which a strange assortment of wild ideas became salable pieces of fiction -- What if Jack the Ripper was really a Woody Allenesque pip-squeak ("The Incomplete Ripper")? What if Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin played together on the same bill ("Touring")? What if a computer salesman were to ply his trade among the faerie-folk ("Golden Apples of the Sun")?

The 18 stories compiled in The Fiction Factory are drawn primarily from the early to mid-'80s, a period during which Dann and most of his collaborators were hungry young authors flexing their creative muscles as they attempted to establish themselves as professional science fiction writers. They fed off each other's energy, batted about the wildest notions and pounded out stories. Stories that might never have been written but for the group-mind crucible of Gardner Dozois's Philadelphia apartment, copious amounts of wine and a surplus of raw talent among friends.

According to the introductions, it was often Dann who first moved to the typewriter to begin the process of "endorphin writing," translating the cascading layers of blue-sky creativity into a concrete piece of fiction. He was the lightning rod channeling the multi-headed muse so that in the days or weeks that followed the members of the team might each commit themselves to crafting a story of which they could all be proud.

It's a process that resulted in some highly original tales and a core of authors who had discovered how to mine the rich, but difficult, territory of collaborative writing. Later Dann collaborations with Janeen Webb or Barry Malzberg or Gregory Frost have a unity and thrust they might easily lack had Dann, with his co-writing experience, not been part of their creation.

Among the best pieces of fiction featured in The Fiction Factory is "Clowns," a haunting tale of madness in which a 10-year-old boy can see the clowns that push people in front of trucks or down flights of stairs -- and now they see him. "The Gods of Mars" sees the first manned landing on the red planet nearly thwarted by a vast sandstorm that, once it subsides, reveals a canal-riddled Mars matching Lowell's early descriptions of the planet. "Down Among the Dead Men" places a vampire among the prisoners in a Nazi death camp.

The Fiction Factory does contain some lesser work. "A Change in the Weather" is less a story than an image and a bad pun. "Life in the Air" feels like a sketch rather than a completed piece and the "marital discord" that precipitates the couple's weightlessness seems insufficiently toxic for such an extreme scenario. But these stories are the exceptions.

The rule is well-crafted, intensely creative, bold fiction. The Fiction Factory is a well-run business and, for the fourth quarter of 2005, it's paying a dividend of speculative fiction at its best.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
4 March 2006

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