On this Saturday past (and with thanks to Terri Osborne) I attended Capclave, a science fiction convention in Silver Spring, Maryland. As conventions go, it was different than any I had attended before–my previous convention experiences having been limited to Shore Leave and Farpoint, both of which are media conventions, while Capclave was geared toward written science fiction. My geek-out moments came when I met Michael Capobianco, co-author of the novel Fellow Traveller, after one panel and Roger MacBride Allen, author of the Caliban trilogy and The Ring of Charon, in the hall during a lull in the programming that interested me. The programming, for Saturday anyway, consisted mainly of author readings and panels geared toward issues in space exploration, scientific discovery, and world-building in science fiction and fantasy. Right up my alley, I had a blast.
Again, because this was a different sort of convention than what I’d attended previously, Capclave had a different sort of dealers’ room. No bootleg DVDs here, no table upon table of Buffy trading cards or Star Trek merchandise. No, these were book dealers, from one side of the room to the other. And it was amazing, just to browse, to see books that I wanted (but couldn’t afford), to see books that I wanted for friends (but could buy elsewhere), to see books that I’d heard of (but thought I’d never see), and occasionally, just occasionally, see a book I’d not heard of at all.
At one table, mid-afternoon, after I’d been through the room a half-dozen times easily, I noticed a book. A black cover, mainly, save for a photograph of a pond, taken from above, and the refraction of the light in the pond made it look like nothing more than a sinister eye. And below the photograph, written in stark lettering–“The Eye of Argon” “Jim Theis”. I had never heard of this. I picked up the book–it was thin, a pamphlet really–and scanned the back cover blurb. “Not a joke,” the blurb proclaimed. But rather than tell me anything about the story of The Eye of Argon, the blurb talked of the story’s history, the story’s legend. I flipped through the book, noticed the lengthy prefatory matter, skipped past that to the story itself, noticed some atrociously poor copy-editing, and put the book back.
My fingers hadn’t quite left The Eye of Argon when the dealer came up upon me. “That’s a real treat,” said he.
“The Eye of Argon,” saidI . “I’ve not heard of it.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Indeed? Then allow me to tell you about it.” And he did. At length. The laughably bad text. Sentences with tortured syntax. “The English language has a million words, and Jim Theis was determined to use every single one of them.” The egregious copy-editing–“It’s like that in the original.” The lost ending. The midnight readings at science-fiction conventions–a sort of contact sport in which the victor is the reader who can make it to the final words without disolving into hysterical laughter. By the time he was done, he’d sold me. I walked away from the table, the proud owner of a copy of The Eye of Argon.
Because I didn’t know of the legend there’s a chance that you, my reader, doesn’t know the legend of The Eye of Argon, either. The story, in its essentials, is this: In 1970 a young science fiction fan named Jim Theis wrote a sword-and-sorcery story entitled The Eye of Argon. The story concerned itself with a Conan-wannabe named Grignr the Ecordian who is thrown into a dungeon after a bar brawl, escapes after fashioning a makeshift knife from the pelvic bone of a dead rat, attacks a group of priests offering up a sacrifice of a prostitute to their heathen god, then steals a bauble, the Eye of Argon, which metamorphoses into a cloud of vapor and attacks our hero, Grignr. From the summary the story sounds a bit cliched. What sets it apart is the manner in which the story is written. The sentences are incredibly labored. Obscure nouns are modified by obscure adjectives, which are in turn modified by obscure adverbs, and whole phrases in that mode are attached in an ever-growing spiral of incoherence and obfuscation. The story reads as though Theis were given a thesaurus for this birthday, then given no directions on its proper use. (One key on thesaurus use–just because the thesaurus lists a word, it doesn’t mean that said word works in all circumstances.) Theis’ word usage is nothing short of remarkable–remarkable in the sense that, in writing the story, he saw absolutely nothing wrong with the word choices he made. Theis published the story in his fan club’s magazine, and in the pre-Internet days of the early 1970s the story passed around from fan to fan in crude retyped and photocopied versions of the story. It became a staple of convention programming, the “contact sport” I mentioned above, in which people would take turns reading the story until the sheer awfulness of the story proved to be too much to bear and the reader collapsed into fits of laughter.
And now I have read The Eye of Argon.
The writing is horribly bad. There are words that will give you a headache just from passing over them in the text. One doesn’t so much read The Eye of Argon as one decodes it. Parsing the words, making sense of the tortured syntax and grammatical infelicities. Yet the story itself isn’t so terrible. Sure, it’s derivative of the sword-and-sorcery genre, but that’s no crime. There’s a decent pace, once you get past the dross of the story’s language and punctuation.
Occasionally, I laughed out loud. Occasionally. If I hit the wrong word just right I would dissolve into giggles. Most of the time I found myself mentally editing the sentences down into something a little less egregious. The humor must come, I suppose, from the performance aspect of the public reading. Attempting to read some of the mangled sentences with any sort of straight face would almost certainly require someone with the patience of a saint. 😉
It turns out there was no need to buy the book–the story is available widely on the ‘net. But for the novelty value, for the education on a part of science-fiction fandom of which I was wholly unaware–that was priceless. 🙂
Someday, I’ll have to go to an Eye of Argon reading at a convention. Perhaps, just for fun, I’ll suggest staging one at Farpoint or Shore Leave, though truthfully reading bad sword-and-sorcery fiction wouldn’t really fit with what those conventions are. Someday, I’ll have my go at the performance art that is The Eye of Argon. 🙂