Davidson, Avram

Tagged: Author | Editor

(1923-1993) US writer and editor, born in Yonkers, New York; he served in the US Navy 1942-1945 and with the Israeli forces as a medic in the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War; he was married to Grania Davis from 1962 to 1964. An orthodox Jew, though his faith found direct expression very rarely in his sf stories, he began publishing work of genre interest with "The Land of Sinim" for Orthodox Jewish Life in 1948 – along with much other work – and his first sf proper with "My Boy Friend's Name is Jello" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1954; as these two dates suggest, he came fully formed to genre work in the 1950s (he also wrote detective stories), and very quickly established a reputation for sometimes obtrusive literacy, considerable wit, and the estranged, sidling worldliness that has evoked comparisons of his work with writers like Jorge Luis Borges, and which justifies a sense that later writers, like Gene Wolfe, found him exemplary. He was soon appreciated: "Or All the Seas with Oysters" (May 1958 Galaxy) won a Hugo in 1959. Much of his early fiction appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which he edited 1962-1964 – it won a Hugo in 1963 – and producing as part of his job The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 12th Series (anth 1963) and two sequels. His first novel was Joyleg (1962) with Ward Moore (whom see for details); his touch is perhaps most visible in the eighteenth-century language Joyleg himself utters.

Davidson's first solo novel, Mutiny in Space (1964), immediately established his credentials as a writer of superior Space Opera rather in contrast to the manner and style of his short works. Other novels with a similarly straightforward effect include Rork! (1965), The Enemy of My Enemy (1966) and, most notably, Masters of the Maze (1965), an intricate Parallel-Worlds adventure with sharply characterized humans and remote Secret Masters involved in barring interdimensional transit to a remarkably vivid insectoid Alien race. The Kar-Chee Reign (1966 dos) and Rogue Dragon (1965) – sometimes described as the Kar-Chee sequence – share a relaxed Far-Future perspective on their Earthly venue, which has become a favourite for pan-Galactic tourists; Clash of Star-Kings (1966 dos), which along with Rogue Dragon was nominated for a Nebula, is set in a richly realized Mexico which becomes a venue for a game of war amongst returning alien "gods". Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973) is a Planetary Romance in which a "disease" of iron, which causes it to rust, must be countered by gathering non-afflicted metals from extraterrestrial sources.

But even these relatively active tales tend to subordinate plot to the play of language and a visible affection for the intricacies of the world as an object of devoted study; these characteristics – which tend to impede any sf release into Conceptual Breakthrough or other forms of transcendence from the arcana of the given – are increasingly found in his later fiction, where an air of combined flamboyance and meditative calm enriches, but does not invariably enliven, ornate sf/fantasies like The Phoenix and the Mirror (May 1966 Fantastic; 1969; vt The Phoenix and the Mirror, or The Enigmatic Speculum 1970), which opens the Vergil Magus sequence in a medieval Alternate History whose universal scholastic worldview, encompassing everything from geography to alchemy, turns out to be literally accurate (Davidson was always fascinated by Pseudoscience). Vergil goes through a number of adventures in this ornately humanized environment in order to find materials to construct a "virgin mirror" or speculum, to trade for his stolen virility; but the novel closes without coming to a satisfactory climax. The second volume of the sequence, Vergil in Averno (1987), published as a sequel but in fact set prior to the earlier novel, does not bring the overall story closer to climax. Set in a factory town inside a volcano, it is a rich and wry parable of the birth of the Renaissance mentality (with the magus himself rather jumping the gun), but its (prophetic) grimness about the course of the Western World was not congenial. The third volume, The Ennead: The Romaunt of Vergil Magus: The Scarlet Fig; Or, Slowly Through a Land of Stone (2005), is a fantasy of Thinning set even earlier in Vergil's life.

Davidson wrote other series, similarly truncated, and containing only a small admixture of sf. The Peregrine sequence – comprising Peregrine: Primus (1971) and Peregrine: Secundus (1981) – very relaxedly conveys its protagonist, who has been transformed into the falcon which is his heraldic emblem, through a wide and intriguing world reminiscent of very late Classical Rome. The Island Under the Earth (1969) begins a fantasy series set in a world whose natural laws are radically and intriguingly disjunct from ours; but it was not continued. It has been suggested that the slow collapse of Davidson's commercial career during the 1970s and 1980s was as much due to his failure to finish these sequences as it was to his growing tendency to enrich, sometimes deliriously, his texts with speculative digressions.

Davidson's short fiction has been assembled in several volumes, including Or All the Seas with Oysters (coll 1962), What Strange Stars and Skies (coll 1965), Strange Seas and Shores (coll 1971), The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (coll of linked stories 1975; exp vt The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy 1990), set in an Alternate-History, Ruritanian version of late-nineteenth-century Europe, The Redward Edward Papers (coll 1978) and The Avram Davidson Treasury: A Tribute Collection (coll 1998) edited by Grania Davis and Robert Silverberg. Davidson's wit and bookish allusiveness – he was perhaps the modern fantastic's most explicitly literary author – shine most persuasively in these shorter works, where constraints in length seem to keep him from floundering or self-indulgence and the narrative thread stays in view; most of his best later work is not, however, sf. The very considerable pleasures of a tale like El Vilvoy de las Islas (August 1988 Asimov's; 2000 chap), which movingly conflates the legend of the Fountain of Youth and the legend of the Wild Boy, do not derive from its speculative content. It might be argued, however, that the Doctor Eszterhazy stories – most of which are assembled as The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (coll 1975; exp vt The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy 1990) – are interestingly sf, in that the elaborate investigations in which the Doctor engages are clearly set in an Alternate History; as are the tales assembled in The Other Nineteenth Century [for subtitle see Checklist] (coll 2001) edited by Grania Davis and Henry Wessells.

The focus enforced by length constraints also had a concentrating effect on a series of disquisitory 1980s essays, published in Asimov's and elsewhere, and assembled as Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends (coll 1993). Working in short compass seemed, too, to excite his extraordinary sense of humour. In the end, there is no easy way to characterize Davidson as an sf writer; he was an anomaly in the field, a veined and porcelain monster as immodest as any of the monsters he created. It is hard to imagine the genre that could encompass him; it is therefore heartening that he was so loved from within the genres of fantasy and sf. At least ten volumes of his work have been published since his death; there may be more to come. In 1986 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC]

see also: Atlantis; Colonization of Other Worlds; Fantasy; Galaxy Science Fiction; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Pastoral; Transmutation; Zoo.

Avram James Davidson

born Yonkers, New York: 23 April 1923

died Bremerton, Washington: 8 May 1993

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Ellery Queen

Kar-Chee

Vergil Magus

Peregrine

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The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Adventures in Unhistory

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