Five Golden Things — Eileen Gunn

Five SF stories about Linotype machines

We don’t see much science-fiction about Linotype machines any more, and it’s easy to forget how radically those big, noisy heffalumps changed the world. Their invention in 1886 spawned publishing’s industrial revolution, and the machines remained pretty much the same over the entire 20th century, even as they were being superseded, first by phototypesetting and then by digital type.

The Linotype and its operators (a rowdy, hard-drinking bunch, at least in legend) had a mystique, and the individual machines had personalities. They had good days and bad days. On a bad day, the operator had to dodge streams of hot lead that could shoot out of a temperamental machine with little warning. On a good day, the operator and the machine got into a rhythm: they became a sort of cyborg. It was kind of a marriage, for certain values of marriage, and the romance was not lost on early SF writers, some of whom had indeed been Linotype operators.

  • “Etaoin Shrdlu” by Fredric Brown (Unknown Worlds, 1942) Major Linotype neepery here, including slugs, minion molds, hoppers full of dead metal, and air-express packages from Mergenthaler, plus a sentient, politically aware typesetting machine, a couple of besozzled typesetters, and a load of patented Fredric-Brown wick-wackery. What can I say? The man loved Linotype machines.
  • “The Angelic Angleworm” by Fredric Brown (Unknown Worlds, 1943) Brown stretches a paper-thin idea to an extraordinary shaggy-dog length, but the protagonist’s appearance before the Head Compositor in Heaven is worth the wait.
  • “The Devil, You Say?” by Charles Beaumont (Amazing Stories, 1951) A suicidal newspaper editor, a mysterious stranger, a number of fortuitous disasters, and a preternatural Linotype machine! Too obvious? Aw, cut the guy some slack — it was the talented Beaumont’s first short story, and he turned it into a popular Twilight Zone episode.
  • “Behind the News,” by Jack Finney (Good Housekeeping, 1952) A classic Finney story, in which an ur-slacker who edits a small town weekly feeds meteor metal into his Linotype and inadvertently turns fiction into fact. Wonderful for said editor’s parody of ’40s newspaper prose as he tortures small-town politicos and learns to temper satire with believability.
  • “Son of ETAOIN SHRDLU: More Adventures in Type and Space,” by Sharon N. Farber, Susanna Jacobson, James Killus and Dave Stout. (Asimov’s SF Magazine, 1981) A short sequel to the Fredric Brown story, of which John Clute writes, in the SF Encyclopedia, that this was Killus’s first published genre story, and his subsequent stories were “more ambitious than this initial vignette.”

The flow of Linotype stories has slowed, but has not dried up completely. Inspired in the course of putting together this list, I fired up the old composing machine and produced “Face Value,” a brief homage to the immortal Fredric Brown, which appeared in the Readercon 24 souvenir book in July. And Linotype Gmbh, a few generations downstream from hot metal and now a marketer of digital typefaces, has returned the compliment to science fiction, with a special offer of five digital fonts.

Eileen Gunn is a writer and editor. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies — Eclipse One, Wired, Hayakawa’s Sf Magazine, Nature, Asimov’s Magazine, and others around the world. Her fiction has received the Nebula award in the United States and the Sense of Gender award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards, and shortlisted for the James Tiptree. Jr. award.

4 thoughts on “Five Golden Things — Eileen Gunn

  • October 25, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Haven’t thought of Linotype stories for years, though I certainly read “Etaoin Shrdlu” and “The Devil, You Say?” Back When. But what caught my eye was the characterizations of typesetters as “a rowdy, hard-drinking bunch,” and I wondered whether their behavior, like the madness of hatters, might have been the result of working in a lead-saturated environment. I Googled around and noticed a 1904 Lancet article, “Antimonial and Lead Poison ing from the Use of the Linotype Machine,” but ScienceDirect wants $36 to let me read it.

  • October 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    Interesting comment, Russell. I asked John Berry, and he laughed, and said, “That behavior long pre-dates the Linotype machine.” He did say that lead fumes from the machine posed at least an opportunity for lead poisoning, but he’d never personally heard anything about antimony poisoning.

  • October 27, 2013 at 2:15 am

    My great-grandmother was a compositor for the Everett Herald. I doubt that all type-setters were rowdy and hard-drinking.

  • October 29, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Fredric Brown owned linotype stories in much the same way Robert Bloch owned Jack the Ripper stories.


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