Robert A. Heinlein

    Robert A. Heinlein

I mentioned that greatest of Campbell-era sf writers, Robert A. Heinlein, a while ago, and that got me to thinking about the man and what it was like to be his editor, at least for the magazine publication of a lot of his work. So I went poking around some musty old papers (and some of the even mustier crevices of my brain) and produced some memories to share with those of you who are interested.

As many of you (especially the ones who have read The Way the Future Was) already know, at the age of nineteen, principally because of dumb luck, I found myself the editor of two professional science-fiction magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and one of my contributors was that same Robert Heinlein.

I hasten to add that that statement conveys an implication which is unjustified. In such a relationship, it is supposed to be the editor who makes the buy-or-bounce decisions, and therefore it is the editor who dominates it.

In this case, that was incorrect. It happens there is a member of my immediate family who exemplifies the Pohl–Heinlein relationship of that period more accurately. Her name is Milly. She is a nine-year-old Jack Russell, and at every meal she sits at my feet, waiting for me to finish so she can lick the crumbs off my plate. This well describes how things were between Robert and me around 1940. Everything he wrote went at once to John Campbell. The few stories that John rejected went to me — to be run only under a pseudonym, to be sure, because that was how John had decreed it.

Still, it wasn’t too bad either for Milly or me. Milly makes a decent living out of my dinner plates (she also gets regular dog food, of course, but I know which she prefers), and I got some nice stories that John had been too opinionated to publish.

Of course, later on things improved for me. By the time I was editing Galaxy and If in the 1960s, John and Bob had suffered some sort of cooling off, and so I got the choice of everything Bob wrote. I didn’t buy it all, but I did buy quite a lot.

For years I was under the impression that the explanation for this was that Robert, for whatever reason, had told his agent not to offer anything to John. I’ve since been told that that’s wrong; the novels were indeed submitted first to Campbell and he rejected every one. If this is true, as I am forced to believe, then it just proves that even the best of editors has occasional fits of idiocy.

Anyway, I was, I admit, a little rueful about the Heinleins I was publishing because Robert had by then apparently begun to run out of steam. Novels like Podkayne of Mars were reasonably cute, but a long way below the products of his glory years. Then, without warning, along came The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, not only right up there with his best but maybe his very best novel ever. I began running it at once.

Naturally it won that year’s Hugo (so did the magazine I ran it in, largely because I had been lucky enough to get such good serials), and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

More to come. . . .

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  1. Michael Walsh says:

    However you ended up with “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” running if that spiffy magazine called IF … thank you!

    And the cover: also nice.

  2. Bruce says:

    If Campbell was rejecting Heinlein’s novels in the 1960’s, I suspect he was trying to keep Kay Tarrant from having a seizure. Or at least, that he was acutely aware that once Kay got through with them, the works would be eviscerated.

  3. Tim Mahoney says:

    I hate to correct Mr. Pohl, a great author in his own right, but I find Podkayne to be one of Robert Heinlein’s more brilliant novels. I do not know if Mr. Heinlein intended the subtext, but it is a milestone in the maturation process that is his writing. While I was not lucky enough to discover his works until the very year he left us, I have fallen in love with them and could (and have) read any one of them multiple times and still find nuggets and new treasures in them.

  4. John Traylor says:

    I well remember read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress when it was serialized in If and having a fit having to wait for the next installment to arrive. Probably my favorite RAH novel if I had to pick just one for that desert island.

  5. Dwight Decker says:

    I love reading these anecdotes about the Golden Age of science fiction. What a different world it must have been for a writer… In the letter column of PLANET STORIES for Winter 1940/41 (just recently reprinted by Adventure House), one of the readers remarks that in the month of July, 1940 alone, no fewer than nine science-fiction magazines appeared on the stands. That would have been forty or more stories. With that many magazines hungry for text to fill up pages, probably any reasonably well-written SF story would have found its way to publication somewhere, even if the first few editors bounced it for reasons particular to them. No wonder Heinlein could think, “If Campbell doesn’t buy it, Fred will!” Unfortunately, times changed…

  6. Kelly Brown says:

    I hope you won’t be offended when I say that what you write here is at least as compelling as your books and a great way to fill the time while we wait for you next one.

  7. Brian says:

    I agree that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was a solid offering; it reminded me of Heinlein’s earliest work. Not my favorite — I’ll admit, I’ve got a soft spot for Puppet Masters and Door Into Summer, and you can read into that what you’d like — but still, I really enjoyed it and have suggested it to many of my friends.

    By the way, I didn’t realize you were the one to serialize it. I’m glad you’ve plugged that hole in my sf knowledge!

  8. Don says:

    As luck has it, I just finished re-reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress last week. Now my daughter (age 11) is reading it. It’s a great story, that is just as relevant today as it was when originally published. Heinlein was indeed a brilliant writer.

  9. Johnny Pez says:

    I guess Campbell\’s variety of cranky conservative didn\’t synch up well with Heinlein\’s variety.

  10. Bald Guy says:

    Wow. I am so ecstatic I found this blog! I don’t want to sound like a fawning fan, Mr. Pohl, but I put you, Heinlein, Clarke, and Poul Anderson in the same class of greatness.

    Re Heinlein, I think The Door Into Summer is his best. And Jem, of course, was yours. :-)

  11. enochered says:

    Tim Mahoney, the commenter whom disagreed with your opinion of Heinlein’s work, in fact had the opposite experience to my own. In time I came to detest his work. I can in fact admit, with no sense of shame that I preferred your work. However I have a slight problem. I had a disastrous fire a few years back and I lost all the books which had been with me since my childhood. I now find that my memory must have been playing tricks with me. I have been trying to track down one of your books, which I remembered as The Puppet Masters. That is of course the title Heinlein’s tale. At first I thought perhaps you had both written a story with the same title, however I can find no trace your work. The story involved an underworld of children, along with adults whom were banished when their Joy-Stick was turned off. Does that ring a bell? Please don’t tell me it is not one yours, that would completely destroy my brain.