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The Eye of Argon

The Eye of Argon is a heroic fantasy novella that narrates the adventures of Grignr, a barbarian. It was written in 1970 by Jim Theis and circulated anonymously in science fiction fandom since then. It has been described as "one of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose", and has subsequently been used as part of a common SF convention party game.

History

The story was written in 1970 by Jim Theis, a St. Louis, Missouri science fiction fan, at age 16. The work was first published in 1970 in OSFAN (the journal of the Ozark SF Society) #7. David Langford described Theis in SFX as "a malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it."

Some time in the 1970s author Thomas N. Scortia obtained a copy, which he mailed to Californian SF writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. She showed it to other fans, and it met with a tremendous and incredulous reaction. The work was copied and distributed widely around science fiction fandom. Readings quickly became a common item on science fiction convention programmes.

The version which currently circulates on the Internet was manually transcribed by Don Simpson from a mimeograph of Theis' original, and bears his note at the bottom:

No mere transcription can give the true flavor of the original printing of The Eye of Argon. It was mimeographed with stencils cut on an elite manual typewriter. Many letters were so faint as to be barely readable, others were overstruck, and some that were to be removed never got painted out with correction fluid. Usually, only one space separated sentences, while paragraphs were separated by a blank line and were indented ten spaces. Many words were grotesquely hyphenated. And there were illustrations — I cannot do them justice in mere words, but they were a match for the text. These are the major losses of this version (#02) of TEoA.

Otherwise, all effort has been made to retain the full and correct text, preserving even mis-spellings and dropped spaces. An excellent proofreader has checked it for errors both omitted [sic] and committed. What mismatches remain are mine.

The Internet text does contain typos not in the original and is incomplete, although a complete copy of the original fanzine was discovered in January 2005

The story was reprinted in 1995. In 2006, a trade paperback edition of the text was published by Wildside Press.

Plot summary

Chapter 1 : The story starts with a violent swordfight between the barbarian Grignr and some soldiers. Grignr is on his way to Gorzom in search of wenches and plunder. Chapter 2 : Grignr arrives in Gorzom and goes to a tavern, where he picks up a local wench (with a "lithe, opaque nose"). A drunken guard challenges him over the woman; he kills the guard, but is arrested by the man's companions and brought before the local prince, who (on the advice of his advisor) condemns him to a life of forced labour in the mines. This chapter contains the first of several occasions when the word "slut" is applied to a man, presumably as an insult. Chapter 3 : Grignr sits despondent in his cell, thinking of his homeland. Chapter 3½ : A scene of a pagan ritual involving a group of shamans, a young woman to be sacrificed and a jade idol with one eye: a "many fauceted scarlet emerald", the Eye of Argon. Chapter 4 : Grignr sits bored and anguished in his cell and is losing track of time. He battles a large rat and it inspires him with a plan, involving the corpse of the rat. Chapter 5 : The pagan ritual proceeds, with a priest ordering the young woman up to the altar. When she fails to proceed, he attempts to grope her. She disables him with a hard kick between the testicles, but the other shamans grab and molest her. Chapter 6 : Grignr is taken from his cell by two soldiers. He takes the rat pelvis he has fashioned into a dagger and slits one soldier's throat. He then strangles the second and takes his clothes. He wanders the catacombs for a time, finding a storeroom, and narrowly avoids being killed by a booby-trap. Below this room he finds the palace mausoleum. He resets the booby-trap in case he is being pursued.
He hears a scream apparently coming from a sarcophagus. He opens it to find the scream is coming from below. He opens a trap door and sees a shaman about to sacrifice the young woman. He ploughs into the group of shamans with an axe and takes the Eye. The young woman, Carthena, turns out to be the tavern wench. They depart. Chapter 7 : One priest, who had been suffering an epileptic seizure during Grignr's attack, recovers, draws a scimitar and follows Grignr and Carthena through the trap door in the ceiling. Chapter 7½ : The priest strikes at Grignr but he triggers, and is killed by, the reset booby-trap before his sword can connect. Carthena tells Grignr of the prince, Agaphim, who had condemned him to the mines. They encounter Agaphim and kill him, as well as his advisor Agafnd.
They emerge into the sunlight. Grignr pulls the Eye of Argon out of his pouch to admire. The jewel melts and turns into a writhing blob with a leechlike mouth. The blob attacks him and begins sucking his blood. Carthena faints. Grignr, beginning to lose consciousness, grabs a torch and thrusts it into the blob's mouth.

Traditional photocopied and Internet versions end at this point, incomplete since page 49 of the fanzine had been lost. The ending was rediscovered in 2004 and published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #198, February 2005. The authenticity of this "lost ending" is still disputed by many. The Lost Ending (Remainder of Ch. 7½) : The blob explodes into a thousand pieces, leaving nothing behind except "a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up." Grignr and the still-unconscious Carthena ride off into the distance.

The lost ending

The version usually found on the Internet is incomplete, ending with the phrase "-END OF AVAILABLE COPY-". The website "http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~susan/sf/eyeargon/eyeargon.htm" claims to have the missing ending section, including information on how the lost ending was discovered. Quoting from that page: For the history of this great work, including the eventual discovery of the legendary lost ending, see New York Review of Science Fiction #195, November 2004, and #198, February 2005.

Ansible, Langford's science-fiction newsletter, reports in its February 2005 issue that "according to a letter in The New York Review of SF (January 2005), a complete copy of the relevant 1970 fanzine has been unearthed in the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University! JWSFL collection administrator Gene Bundy reports that the long-missing Page 49 begins: `With a sloshing plop the thing fell to the ground, evaporating in a thick scarlet cloud until it reatained its original size.'..."

Some commentators have voiced skepticism about this "lost ending," however. Stephen Bond contends that "the lost ending is an obvious fake," pointing out many discrepancies between the prose style and content of the established work and those of the new text.

Other attributed authors

Many readers have found it hard to believe the story was not a collaborative effort, a satire on bad writing, or both. Langford reported the following, sent in by author Michael Swanwick, in Ansible #193:

I had a surprising conversation at Readercon with literary superstar Samuel R. Delany, who told me of how at an early Clarion the students and teachers had decided to see exactly how bad a story they could write if they put their minds to it. Chip himself contributed a paragraph to the round robin effort. Its title? "The Eye of Argon".

The 1995 reprint was attributed to "G. Ecordian," after the hero, Grignr the Ecordian.

Langford considers it well known that Theis is the author, and surmises that Delany misremembered the event.

As a party game

Reading The Eye of Argon aloud has been made into a game, as described by SF critic Dave Langford in SFX magazine: "The challenge of death, at SF conventions, is to read The Eye of Argon aloud, straight-faced, without choking and falling over. The grandmaster challenge is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium. What fun we fans have."

The author

James F. Theis (pronounced "Tice") was born August 9, 1953 and died March 26, 2002. He published The Eye of Argon in a fanzine in 1970 at age 16. He did not write any more fiction, but did gain a degree in journalism. His hobbies included collecting books, comics, and German swords; he also collected, traded, and sold tapes of radio programs of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s under the business-name "The Phantom of Radio Past", advertising in such publications as the Fandom Directory.

In an interview with Theis on 8 March 1984 on Hour 25, a talk show on KPFK, the presenters of which would periodically stage a reading of The Eye of Argon, Theis stated that he was hurt that his story was being mocked and said he would never write anything again. In a later interview he complains about being mocked for something he had written thirty years ago, at age sixteen. He is said to have participated in readings of the story in St Louis, e.g. at Archon. A copy of the 1995 reprinting was sent to him, with no response.

Appearances in popular culture

Adam Cadre wrote a "MSTing" of the story, a reading of the text in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000, that proved to be one of the most well-known and highly regarded of its genre. While the ranking system at Web Site #9 was still functioning, Cadre's work continually placed among the top three.

The Eye has appeared in an object in several videogames; the online role playing game Guild Wars Nightfall has a shield called the Eye of Argon, and in the console role-playing game Vagrant Story, the player can use Eyes of Argon to reveal traps. In The Elder Scrolls series of games, the Eye of Argonia is a mystical jewel from the little-known region of the same name. An action game titled The Eye of Argonia was planned for the more ambitious RPG, Morrowind, but canceled. Like the Eye of Argonia story, the unproduced game has become a running joke in Elder Scrolls games.

The computer game Deus Ex contains a small excerpt of the book; it is found in a bookshelf in a Paris apartment. The computer role-playing game Ultima VIII has books that include excerpts from Ear of Arricorn, a story quite similar to The Eye of Argon and employing equally rich metaphorical language, but containing fewer typographical errors.

In Michael Swanwick's The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, the chapter on argon is named "The Eye of Argon", referring to the supernaturally keen perception of a warrior named Argon.

References

See also

External links

Story text and variations

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