Which famous sci-fi author wrote the worst book he could on a bet?
March 21, 2006 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Which famous sci-fi author bet another author that if he wrote the worst book he could, it would become a hit?

Long ago, I read a science fiction novel (don't recall which one), where, in the foreword (or afterword), the author told the following story:

Two famous science fiction authors were arguing about just how awful the public's taste was. One author proposed a bet: He would write the cheesiest, most cliched book he could possibly write, and it would become a hit. He wrote such a book, and it became such a big hit that the public demanded several sequels.

The author telling the story said that he wouldn't print the names of these authors, but that it was a very well-known story, and you could ask around at any sci fi convention to get the names. It's been almost 20 years and I still haven't been to a sci fi convention. Does anyone know any more about this story? I'm starting to wonder if it's a trick played on conventiongoers or something.
posted by pornucopia to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Wasn't it L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein?
posted by macadamiaranch at 7:52 AM on March 21, 2006

I heard a different version of the Hubbard story, in which he founded Scientology on a bet as to the gullibility of the general public.

Not sure if either version's true. Just saying.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:53 AM on March 21, 2006

The Scientology bet is true. Harlan Ellison was there along with about 4 other sci fi writers. To get back on topic I don't think it can be Hubbard - he only knew how to wite cheesy cliches.
posted by oh pollo! at 7:58 AM on March 21, 2006

It must have been the Mission Earth series by Hubbard. I read it in junior high and the only thing I remember was an alien who had a fetish for S&M sessions involving a cheese grater and alcohol poured into the wounds.
posted by mrbill at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2006

Response by poster: Hey, thanks for all the answers so far. Can we refrain from simply listing all the cheesy stories we know? I'd like to hear from people who specifically know about this alleged bet between two authors.
posted by pornucopia at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2006

It's surely Philip Jose Farmer's "Venus on the Half Shell", a novel written as if by the author Kilgore Trout, identified by Kurt Vonnegut in several of his novels as the worst (and best) SF author in the world
posted by A189Nut at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2006

L. Ron Hubbard and Ray Bradbury was the urban legend that I've heard most often -- and the bet was that he could create a religion and people would believe.
posted by mrmojoflying at 8:40 AM on March 21, 2006

I don't know the authors involved, but the foreward in question is from one of Philip Jose Farmer's Callahan books, also reprinted in the omnibus edition "The Callahan Chronicals."

One reviewer on the Amazon page for Chronicals was utterly convinced that Callahan's Crosstime Saloon was the work referenced therein:

Somewhere in the afterword of "The Callahan Chronicals," Robinson alludes to an SF writer who wrote a series of stories that were deliberately bad, I suppose as a sort of commentary on the literary standards of the public. The series proved popular. After reading this note, I wondered for a few days what the series could be. Then, duh, it struck me. Robinson is, of course, referring to the stories in this very book. It's a reasonable joke, but not one I was happy to pay for.

I'm pretty sure that reviewer is wrong, but it's one opinion.
posted by Eldritch at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Eldritch, that is indeed the series that I remember reading so long ago. Excellent. (by Spider Robinson, not Phillip Jose Farmer)
posted by pornucopia at 8:51 AM on March 21, 2006

Response by poster: So yeah, I'm starting to wonder if the story was just invented by Robinson.
posted by pornucopia at 8:51 AM on March 21, 2006

I'm wondering if this is a combination of the "Elron and (someone) made a bet about religion" anecdote and the theory that Heinlein's Number of the Beast is intentionally bad.

An argument against this being the book in question is the fact that no sequels were written for it.
posted by flipper at 9:17 AM on March 21, 2006

The Scientology bet is true. Harlan Ellison was there along with about 4 other sci fi writers.

Scientology was started in 1952, when Ellison was 17 or 18. It was based on Dianetics, which was started in 1950, when Ellison was 15. Not saying he couldn't have been there, wherever "there" was, but it sounds unlikely to me.

Harlan Ellison is in his seventies! My mind boggles.
posted by languagehat at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2006

I remember the Scientology story as occuring on a cruise ship, with Arthur C. Clarke as a witness to the bet. That story is definitely in "urban legend" territory, though.
posted by Prospero at 9:57 AM on March 21, 2006

I remember this story, but alas, not the details. My recollection is that it was actually a fantasy/barbarian series... either Conan (by Edgar Rice Burroughs) or Gor (John Norman).
posted by steadystate at 11:00 AM on March 21, 2006

There was a similar story behind the writing of the movie Knock Off...
posted by johngoren at 11:15 AM on March 21, 2006

While there may be some interesting stuff in this thread, the misattributions are like fingernails on the chalkboard. Maybe this thread could be a verbal "name what's wrong with this picture". Here's my addition: maybe it was "Caves of Steel" by Arthur C. Clark or "The Worm Ouroborous" by Mervyn Peake or "The Merman's Children" by Robert Silverberg. Who knew disinformation could be so much fun?
posted by 445supermag at 12:37 PM on March 21, 2006

Damn. I remember reading, years ago, a short story by Fritz Lieber that was a satire on the CoS. Can't remember the title of that story, or more details, but apparently Lieber wrote it to call out Hubbard for his sham religion, the idea being that Lieber knew it was all a put-on. So perhaps he was in this circle, somehow.
posted by adamrice at 12:42 PM on March 21, 2006

Yeah, that was Spider Robinson writing it. My assumption was always that it was either Piers Anthony (the excrable Xanth series), or Terry pratchett (Discworld), though I think the latter is too late.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:22 PM on March 21, 2006

ehrm, wasn't The Worm Ouroboros by ERR Eddison? Mervyn Peake died of Parkinson's disease & sleeping sickness after writing the Gormenghast trilogy and not much (nothing?) else.
posted by pullayup at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2006

Ehrm, crap, I didn't read your post, sorry.
posted by pullayup at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2006

Terry Southern wrote Candy on a bet that the worst possible sex novel could become a best-seller (which it did).

A group of writers contributed chapters (without reading the other writers' work) to create Naked Came the Stranger, another sex novel that also became a best-seller, even though the word was out before it was published.
posted by KRS at 1:52 PM on March 21, 2006

flipper: Number of the Beast has many sequels. Except for Job and Friday, all Heinlein's last works were sequels to Beast, which was a sequel especially to the Lazarus Long books, as well as Heinlein's general body of work.

Funny, I never considered it a terrible book, but I just accepted it as a celebration of Heinlein's characters. I'll have to re-read with that story about it's being a manual to write, in mind. (my first edition is dogeared though).
posted by Goofyy at 1:21 AM on March 22, 2006

My bad. The Conan books were actually written by Robert E. Howard (of course).
posted by steadystate at 10:21 AM on March 22, 2006

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