Register Monday | August 10 | 2020

The Cardboard Universe

Three entries from Christopher Miller's acclaimed new novel.

Christopher Miller’s new novel, The Cardboard Universe: a Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank.  is satirical murder-mystery about a prolific science-fiction writer named Phoebus K. Dank. This novel has two narrators: a sycophantic professor named William Boswell who worships Dank (and even teaches courses in Dank Studies), and a bitter, sarcastic poet named Owen Hirt who constantly derides Dank. Hirt’s entries are in bold.

“Adam Able, Astronaut”

Not, despite its title, a picture book for boys, but a breathtakingly mindless and hagiographic short story about strong, silent, square-jawed Adam Able—unafraid of Martians, unimpressed by hyperspace, and irresistible to women—and his space adventures.

Dank’s worst stories tend to telegraph their badness in the first sentence. No one who keeps reading after an opening like this has any right to complain about the ordeal that follows:

If there was one thing Adam hated, a top astronaut and winner of the prestigious Armstrong Award, that they only awarded every decade, it was when Sheba, his space ship, started making funny noises that drove him up the wall—literally, for there is no gravity in Space.

As Mencken said of Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address, “It is the style of a rhinoceros liberating himself by main strength from a lake of boiling molasses.” And that’s after copyediting. At one point the piece was even worse. Dank wrote it, originally, in the future tense, reasoning that since it was set in the future, the story should be worded like a prophecy—albeit an unusually elaborate and longwinded one—and not a chronicle:

Adam will enter the flight deck just as Quisix-9 is in the process of shape-shifting into the form of Lt. Zadar.

“What the hell is going on?” Adam will demand, striding purposefully towards the Venusian.

Quisix-9 will pause in mid-transformation to draw his plasma gun . . .

It was his editor (at a magazine called Flabbergasting Science Fiction) who ordered Dank to return the rusty and sputtering time machine of his syntax to the present, thereby saving him, this once, from making an ass of himself. Or an even bigger ass. A few years later, though—in 1980, soon after the Pioneer space probes sent back their disappointing news about the odds of life on Venus—Dank (still proud enough of “Adam Able” to permit its reprinting in some flatulent anthology) re-verbed the story again, this time in the subjunctive mood:

And then, if life were possible on Venus—that torrid ball of barren rock and deadly greenhouse gases—Adam would have encountered a native in the hold of his spaceship during his routine pre-launch systems check.

“Who the hell are you?” he would have demanded, drawing a bead on the stowaway with his matter annihilator.

My name is Quisix-9,” the creature would have warbled in its unearthly voice—a voice that would have seemed to come not from its mouth but from its dozens of frantically waving green tentacles. “Think of me as an emissary from my people to yours.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call you guys ‘people,’” Adam would have retorted, stubbing out his cigarette.   

And How Will I Know You?

Dank’s prodigious output is even more astounding when you reflect that in addition to the books discussed in this encyclopedia, he also wrote some hundred other books, in his mid-twenties, under such pseudonyms as Steve Rockhard, Dirk Manning, and John Slaughter. I have reluctantly acceded to his wish not to include entries for those novels. Most, in any case, are impossible to find. But judging from the few I’ve managed to track down, Dank was unfair to himself—or to his square-jawed alter egos—in dismissing his pseudonymous output as “speedwritten trash.” The books do appear to have been written rather hastily, but even the fifty-seven to which Dank signed his name were written faster than those of his more fussy, less inspired fellow authors. The unstoppable, almost incontinent gush of Dank’s imagination far outpaced any novelist’s ability to convert ingenious premises into well-turned sentences and well-crafted narratives.

And How Will I Know You? is unique in that it started off as a John Slaughter novel (the protagonist is Slaughter’s trademark hero, astronaut Brock Headstrong), but one with such a fertile premise that its author found himself unable to toss it off in two weeks as usual. He kept vowing not to sweat the details, but he wound up sweating them profusely, spending two months on the novel and producing something he was proud to sign his name to.

The book opens with an astronaut’s return to earth after twenty years of tooling around the solar system. He worries that he’ll no longer recognize his wife and children, and it turns out he was right to worry: in his absence, a new virus called “the Proteus strain” has infected the entire human race, causing people to change their physical form, involuntarily and unpredictably, every night as they sleep. Some constants do survive the transformation—gender, mass, apparent age—but the rest is up for grabs. Every time two people—even twins—arrange to meet, they have to ask each other the title question: “And how will I know you?”

Dank refused to talk about his pseudonymous books, and we may never know just how many there were or how he managed to write them so fast—faster than most of us can type. In top form, in fact—and though he’d taught himself touch-typing—Dank wrote even faster than he could type. An average session ended with a good hour of data entry from memory’s buffer after his inspiration dried up. He took most of his speedwriting secrets to the grave with him, but we do know he had dozens of abbreviations for frequently-used phrases, abbreviations he’d expand at the last moment in the final draft. As a result, his speedwritten manuscripts can be pretty cryptic. A few years ago, by comparing first and final (i.e., second) drafts of three Dirk Manning paperback originals whose paper trails Dank neglected to sweep up, I determined that in the mid-1970s the following abbreviations were standard for him:

agd = anti-gravity device
ba = benevolent alien
bb = big-breasted
cblf = carbon-based life form
cdcswffc = at the CDC, scientists were working feverishly to find a cure
ew = earth women
gf = galactic federation
hsb = he said brusquely
hsg = he said grimly
hsgx = he said gruffly
hwc = her womanly curves
il = intelligent life
mi = memory implant
pp = protein pills
pu = parallel universe
sc = space colony
sj = square-jawed
spu = striding purposefully
ss = spaceship
thah = threw herself at him
tsswd = threw the spaceship into warp drive
vx = videophone
waa = was actually an alien
waar = was actually a robot*
wmfw = was a man of few words
waw = was actually a woman
wstvr = was still trapped in a virtual reality
wcip = “We come in peace”
wfhi = women found him irresistible

Because Dank used a typewriter in those days, he did eventually have to spell out the full version of each and every occurrence of phrases like “galactic federation” in the final draft. By the time he switched over to a word processor in 1986, he was no longer writing much straight science fiction. But he still found abbreviations useful, and indeed the ease with which he could get his computer to expand every instance of “aishfft,” for example, to “as if seeing her for the first time,” or of “ycrap” to “you can’t run away from your problems”—that dangerous ease led Dank to construct his books as much as possible from prefabricated phrases. It took him a while to realize that his computer couldn’t distinguish (for instance) between the “bb” that stood for “big-breasted” and the “bb” in “robber.” Since neither he nor the publisher of his first word-processed book had been especially zealous about copyediting, that book—SIGHT UNSEEN—is marred by such monstrosities as “‘Hand over the money!’ barked the robig-breasteder gruffly, brandishing a pistol.” But even with misprints a novel by Dank is better than one by anyone else.

*That one must have saved a lot of time: Dank, whose eagerly-awaited mail-order love doll had proven such a bitter disappointment (unlifelike, unladylike, and so leaky that he had to reinflate her during sex), loved to fantasize about a future era when it will be impossible to tell the robots from the humans. And certainly his humans—with their push-button emotions, pre-recorded dialogue, and tiny repertoire of jerky gestures—are impossible to distinguish from robots. (OH)

“The Architect”

Spunky young reporter moves to small town for newspaper job, buys big red house suspiciously cheap, promptly “senses” something wrong with it. Asks around and, sure enough, house has “checkered history”: suicide, infanticide, castration, vivisection, bestiality. Former tenants all in prisons, coffins, mental institutions. Turns out house was built by evil real-estate mogul still bitter over failure, as young idealistic architect, to get young idealistic houses built. Now designs malignant houses, builds at own expense, sells cheap, and conducts unholy “psycho-architectural” experiments on unsuspecting tenants.* Tragical, tragical stuff. Lest reader fail to realize story is sad and not funny, author uses saddening adjective, “tragical,” twenty-seven times, cue card telling audience when not to laugh.

* Whether or not a house can really drive its occupants to the sort of excesses imagined in Dank’s story, it can certainly affect their moods as much as the weather outdoors does. I’m painfully aware of that today, July 7, 2006. It’s a beautiful blue summer day, but my mood and I are stuck inside this tiny dingy rented house (in what I now know to be the ugliest suburb of Portland) that I moved into after Dank’s death a few weeks ago, when—seeing no good reason to remain in Hemlock, and several good reasons to leave—I took my show on the road. I ended up in a house, and in a neighborhood, where there’s truly nothing for a thinking man to do but kill himself, and I’d have done so by now if I weren’t determined first to finish this guide. (BB)