Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, from left, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944.

Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, from left, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944.

The Asimov store and apartment were just off one corner of the immense Prospect Park, on Windsor Place. I lived, with my mother, on the opposite corner, on St. John’s Place near where Eastern Parkway runs into Grand Army Plaza. It was a neat neighborhood to live in, with not only the Park but the fine Brooklyn Museum just across the street. I spent a lot of time roaming the park, which is a beauty, sometimes with Cyril Kornbluth or some other Futurian, more often alone.

Sometimes I would find myself at Isaac’s end of the park, and if the hour was respectable (as sometimes it wasn’t, since several of us Futurians had devil-may-care attitudes about sleep, and in those years Prospect Park was never closed), we might walk the extra block or two to drop in on Isaac. (Two notes here in the interests of full disclosure. I did also have some thoughts of the free malted that Mrs. Asimov was likely to offer me. And I did sometimes suspect that Cyril’s interest involved Marcia, Isaac’s sister. But maybe I was wrong about that. I don’t think anything came of it.)

As his brother, Stanley, began to mature into the role of full participant of candy-store chores, Isaac’s responsibilities began to ease a little. That was a good thing, since he had a busy life. In addition to his interest in science fiction, he had taken on another challenge. His father had given him a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That was a gift that might have perplexed some teenagers, but not Isaac. He knew what books were for, so he picked up Volume 1, turned to the beginning of the A’s and began to read. He told me it was his intention to read all the way to the end of the Z’s, but whether he made it all the way, I don’t know.

Isaac Asimov, 1940

    Isaac Asimov, 1940.

Isaac and I were pretty much of the same age. (We couldn’t be sure just how close, because neither of his parents was sure when his birthday was — sometime in the fall to mid-winter of 1919–1920, while mine was November 26th.) When we were both seventeen, we both made a major change in our educational status. Isaac graduated from high school and began college (and kept on with schooling until he reached the Ph.D. — one of the only two Futurians to get that far, the other being Jack Robins). While I quit school entirely and never went back.

Around about then, both Isaac and I formed the habit of visiting science-fiction editors in their offices. Isaac concentrated on a single one, John Campbell, who had recently replaced F. Orlin Tremaine as editor of Astounding.

What Isaac did was write an actual story, leave it with Campbell and come back a month later to get the rejected manuscript (which he then mailed off to Amazing Stories, who bought it right away), along with a thirty-minute lecture on what Isaac did wrong and what he should have done right. So Isaac wrote a second story, trying to do it as Campbell had described. That got the same treatment; bounce with lecture from Campbell, acceptance by Amazing. And the third story was the charm. It was accepted by Campbell, as were scores of others over the next decades.

While I had followed a different course entirely, visiting nearly all the sf magazine editors there were — now a couple of dozen, as science fiction was having an unexpected boom. Nominally I was an agent offering them stories by my clients. I don’t think I made any actual sales, but when I confided to one of the new editors, a kind man named Robert Erisman, that I, too, would like to be an editor, he pointed me in the direction of Harry Steeger’s pulp chain Popular Publications, currently in the process of adding a number of new titles to their list.

I went there and offered my services to Steeger. Wonderfully, he took me on, allowing me to create two new science-fiction magazines, and suddenly Isaac had a new fallback market for the stories John Campbell didn’t want, and I had a prolific contributor.

 
That was quite a happy time for both of us, but what then came along was World War II.

That affected more people than just the two of us. Campbell suddenly discovered that editing the best science-fiction magazine in the world was no longer enough to satisfy him. Through friends, he found out that the Navy was willing to set up a small research facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to take on problems that the established teams weren’t handling, and set himself to help the war effort by recruiting people to staff it. Robert A. Heinlein was an easy choice: former Annapolis man himself, invalided out as a j.g. and desperate to get back into uniform. L. Sprague de Camp because he, too, couldn’t pass the physical for actual combat. Isaac was a natural. And there was also a good-looking female lieutenant better known by the name she acquired a few years later, Ginny Heinlein.

I’m not sure the team ever made much progress in their researches, but they did give it the old Navy try. Especially Isaac, who was yearning to find some kind of high-tech career to follow, since he had learned he was never going to be a doctor. No medical school would accept him, because there was a sort of gentlemen’s agreement to limit the number of Jewish doctors threatening to convert the whole practice of medicine into a Jewish specialty. So quotas had been established, and they were all filled.

 
(Many more parts to come.)

 
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11 Comments

  1. Jim Flanagan says:

    Thank you for these wonderful recollections.

    I often felt that some of the coincidences that inhabit many Science Fiction stories were a little unrealistic given my own experiences.

    But, now see that they made complete sense in a world where so many fortunate confluenceses of genius occured. I mean. The fact that Pohl & Asimov lived accross the park from each other would be a coincidence that I’d scoff at in a work of Fiction.

  2. DavidPhillipOster says:

    For years, I’ve wanted to ask this question of someone who would know, while Asimov, de Camp, and Heinlein were at the research facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during WWII, were they involved in any experiments involving making war ships invisible? (As documented in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Philadelphia_Experiment ).

    to clarify: Is there any connection between them and the story of the Philadelphia Experiment? If so, it would be fun to hear about it. If not, it’s a shame. A classic lost opportunity.

  3. Pavel Lishin says:

    I\’m moving up to New York in November, and I can\’t wait to visit all the places you\’ve mentioned. You, and Asimov and Heinlein made a lasting impression on me, from when I was a kid, until now.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    @David: Hmmm . . . famous SF authors working on weird technologies . . . that would make a great SF series.

  5. Joseph Crockett says:

    Dear Mr. Pohl;

    I have been greatly enjoying your blog , as I did The Way The Future Was. I came to science fiction first through films and comic books, before graduatng to fantasy novels and finally sci-fi. Consequently, I am fascinated by the history of it all.

    I recently read the late Julius Schwartz’s autobigraphy, Man Of Two Worlds, and was amazed to see the parallels of your early careers. He went from fandom to agent to comic book editing; while you from fandom to pulp editor to agent (all the while writing, of course). Your careers obviously diverged, but he remained active on the convention circuits for both comics and sci-fi. He mentioned you twice in his book, but only briefly (it was a short book) and I was thinking that you must have had more dealings with him as you travelled in the same circles. Do you recall much about Mr. Scwartz, or for that matter about the start of the comic book industry?

    Thanks for taking the time to read my comments and THANKS FOR THE BLOG!

    Sincerely,
    Joseph Crockett

    P.S. I am something of a slow reader so I would appreciate knowing what you would consider to be to be the top ten best science fiction novels/stories of all time; those that every fan MUST read.

  6. Carl V. says:

    These first two posts have been absolutely wonderful and I do hope that you keep them up. It is a great pleasure to learn more about you, and Isaac Asimov and others, through them.

  7. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    David Phillip Oster writes:

    <i>For years, I’ve wanted to ask this question of someone who would know, while Asimov, de Camp, and Heinlein were at the research facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during WWII, were they involved in any experiments involving making war ships invisible?</i>

    No.

    I suppose Wikipedia is not allowed to say that something is complete nonsense, because that would violate their rule about \"neutral point of view.\" But I am free to say it. The \"Philadelphia Experiment\" is complete nonsense. Nonsense from a physics point of view and nonsense from a historical point of view.

    Furthermore, there is no connection between the three SF writers and any of the aspects of the \"Philadelphia Experiment\" conspiracy theory– except that they were working at another Navy facility nearby (the Naval Aircraft Factory\’s Aeronautical Materials Laboratory, not the Philadelphia Navy Yard) during the same period.

    Heinlein began in the spring of 1942, at first assisting with recruiting technical talent and other administrative tasks. This led to jobs for Asimov and de Camp, among others. Later Heinlein moved into work on plastics.

    De Camp was a Navy lieutenant who was assigned to the NAF. He worked on a variety of engineering jobs, including supervising the construction of an altitude chamber and a \"cold room\" to test equipment at stratospheric and Arctic temperatures. He wrote, \"So for three and a half years Asimov, Heinlein, and I, along with scores of other technical people, navigated desks and fought the war with flashing slide rules.\"

    If you want to see how L. Sprague de Camp himself answered Mr. Oster\’s question, see this link:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=YUHzYPFrJyQC&pg=PA225

    Asimov was a civilian chemist who arrived in May 1942. He worked in the Chemicals and Coatings unit. He has written about his work in the first volume of his autobiography, IN MEMORY YET GREEN, if you care to learn more.

    I hope this is helpful.

  8. Jerry says:

    Asimov had quite the system for his submissions to Campbell, didn\\\’t he? And I\\\’m kind of shocked at the genteel Antisemitism he encountered. I knew that was common in housing back then, but I didn\\\’t know it was so pervasive.

  9. Elizabeth Coleman says:

    @DavidPhilipOster
    There’s a story called “Green Fire” written as a round robin between Eileen Gunn, Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick, which plays with the fact that The Philadelphia Experiment, Asimov and Heinlein were around at the same time. It’s in Eileen’s collection, “Stable Strategies,” and is weird, weird, weird.

  10. Bill Goodwin says:

    His words like dust encircle the world

    In living mists of ink,

    All of thought from pages unfurled

    In one vast burst of Think.

  11. John Takao Collier says:

    My family and I visited relatives in Brooklyn over the summer and I dearly wanted to visit site of the former Asimov candy store, but alas, we ran out of time and it was not to be.

    However, I found a website that shows what the location currently looks like: http://brooklynometry.blogspot.com/2008/01/cbs-construction-once-asimov-candy.html