Part 2 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Bester: It’s kind of peculiar, we are finally accepted — the Johnny-come-latelys are now talking about “sci-fi,” which is an abbreviation which I loathe. But what makes me very curious is what the hell people are looking for in science fiction. Predictions of the future, extrapolations of technology, that sort of thing?
I still think science fiction is the poetry of literature, and if you want new ideas and ways of telling a story and new kinds of stories, you go to science fiction, because God knows you can’t find it in ordinary commercial fiction today. Most of the hundreds of science fiction soft-cover books are old-style space opera nonsense to which we pay no attention.
If you want something arresting, read a novel by Fred Pohl, which yesterday won the most distinguished award that science fiction has to offer.
Pohl: The name of the book is Gateway and it won the heaviest damn award I’ve ever had to carry around. [Editor's note: It won the Campbell, Nebula and Locus Awards that year, and — two months later — the Hugo Award as well.]
Bester: Now tell them about the book, because you will be explaining to them, Fred, what I’m talking about, about the freshness of approach, freshness of ideas.
Pohl: The book concerns a man about 20, 50, 100 years from now whose name is Robinette Broadhead and who works in the food mines in Wyoming. Here they dig out the shale rock and squeeze out the oil, and grow single-cell protein on the oil (there’s a British Petroleum patent on this). He happens to hit lucky and get some money and pays his passage to an asteroid, somewhere out in space, called Gateway, where, half a million years ago, some wandering people, creatures, beings of another star left a lot of spaceships around. They still work. There is nobody there, there is no explanation of anything, but there are the spaceships. And if you get into them and push the right buttons they will take you anywhere in the galaxy.
The difficulty is that you don’t know where, because nobody knows how to read their inscriptions. And you don’t know if you will come back and you don’t know what you’ll find. So what you do is you get into it and you pray hard for a while and you push a button and by and by you do or do not emerge on another planet somewhere. And do or do not find something, some artifact, some mineral, some gem, whatever, that will make you rich forever. If you’re lucky you get back. If you’re very lucky you get back rich. Most people don’t get back or don’t find anything. And this is the central story of Gateway, which may or may not be flashingly original but I kind of enjoyed it.
At the same time, there’s a parallel story going chapter by chapter, which is the story of this man’s psychoanalysis. His shrink is a computer programmed to be a psychoanalyst, whose name is Sigfrid von Shrink. He’s my favorite character in the book. And there’s a dialogue between Broadhead and the computer that goes all the way through it.
I will reveal to you the depths of my vanity. I like the book a lot and I’m awfully pleased that it won. I worked hard on it over a long period of time. The thing about the book is, as Alfie said, I didn’t set out in my mind to construct this book.
I began writing different things and throwing half of them away and then writing sections and not being sure where they fitted in. And thinking more about the character and perceiving that these things must be true of him, I put them in. And thinking about what he would do and how he would feel, and changing the book because he developed a life of his own as he went along. Changing the book to make it conform to the realities of what I perceived of him, and after five or six years I had a stack of papers so high, which amounted to 50 or 100 little scenes that I knew contained within them, somewhere, a novel, if I could only find it.
Then — one of the side benefits that are sometimes given to science-fiction writers — I was lecturing on science fiction and they gave me a cruise to six ports in the Caribbean while I did it. And I had pieces of paper strewn all over my stateroom, trying to find out which went in front of which, and the steward kept wanting to come in and clean the room, and I kept saying “No, no, stay away, you’ll destroy seven years of work if you do.”
But I got it sorted out and pieced it together. It was a laborious way of writing a novel and usually I’m much more efficient and linear, but I’m pleased with the way it came out. I have no modesty in this matter.
Bester: Fred’s neglected to point out that he has extrapolated our great American disease, which is that success is the be-all and end-all of life and no matter what you do, if you end up rich and successful, it is worth any risk. This was the point that Fred made in the novel, and which is most pertinent — if anyone knows the career of Richard Nixon, for example.
But as for that tessellated quality of putting it together, this is the way I do it all the time. I put together these various pieces into a giant mosaic and I constantly have pieces of paper saying, “Now this doesn’t go before that, it goes after that.”
“Hey, lady,” I’ll say to my Redhead, “which do you think should go first?” I need to have outside opinions and stuff like that. As you say, it isn’t linear; but I think it develops as we become more mature as writers. We no longer work in the linear style because life is no longer linear.
Pohl: As you said before, we both grew up through the pulps. I don’t know exactly when I became a professional writer, because my first sale was a poem. I wrote it when I was 15, and it was accepted when I was 16 and published when I was 17 and paid for when I was 18. Somewhere in there I became a professional writer, and I’ve been pounding away at the same typewriter keys ever since.
When I first began writing seriously, I carefully schooled myself to put a sheet of white paper, a carbon sheet and a second sheet into the typewriter, type my name and address, begin writing, and when I’d finished I took it all out, put it in an envelope and mailed it to someone, and sometimes they bought it and sometimes not — but enough to keep me going. And I did that for about 10 years, and at the end of those 10 years I realized that I had published 40 or 50 stories and had managed to eat fairly well, at least part of the time. But I had not yet published anything that I was proud of.
I had schooled myself to write linearly and rapidly from the beginning to the end, making it up as I went along, never looking back and never changing. It’s like instant lightning sketches at a beach resort, you can do them fast, you can do them sure, but you can’t do them good. So I decided to trick myself, and ever since then, which is now 30 years of writing, I’ve always done my first drafts on the back of old correspondence and circulars — so there is no way I could submit them that way. So I’ve got to retype them and therefore I make myself rewrite every word before I send them out. And the disease is getting pretty terminal, because now I rewrite four times, five times, six times before it goes out.
Bester: I do that all the time, Fred. I start in longhand — I work in legal pads in longhand.
But I’ve got a story to back you up on what you just said. After five or 10 years of scriptwriting — and I was carrying two or three shows a week at the time — it seemed to me that I was getting very old and very slow. I couldn’t write as many scripts as I had before.
But I went back and read the old scripts hoping that I could steal from them something to use in the future — naturally we all steal from ourselves. I read through the old scripts and discovered I wasn’t writing less. I was just writing less schlock, because 75 percent of all that stuff I had turned out was junk that I never wanted to see again. When we’re young writers we’re so hungry that we’d write anything, anyhow, as rapidly as possible. As we get older we become a little more discriminating, a little more self-critical.
Pohl: I think the critical faculty grows faster than the creative one; you get to see what’s wrong with it faster than you can do anything about it.
The trouble with most young writers — I know it was true for me — is that they really care more about being writers than they care about writing, and least of all about writing well. I think most of us have an image in our minds of the writer as the fellow who jetsets around the world and movie stars fall on him. Headwaiters say “Oh, are you Mr. Bester?”
What we want is the glamor and the excitement and the reward without the work. In order to be a writer there is this really unfortunate, necessary prerequisite — I have to break it to people all the time. They say to me: “How do you get to be a writer?” and I take a deep breath and say:
“You’re gonna hate this. You have to write! You have to sit down and actually put words on paper,” and they say, “Really?”
And when you start doing that you find there’s a great deal more drudgery and tedium in writing, and quite a lot more pain often enough in the act of writing than there is pleasure. The sensation of having written is really great, and I wouldn’t trade it with anything in the world, but the process of getting the words onto the paper is no fun.
Bester: Well, I’ll go even further than you. I have always been particularly obsessed with originality. So to young writers I always say, “The first thing you will have to do if you would like to write in a particular medium is to research it. If you want to be a science-fiction writer, you have to read every goddamn science-fiction story that has been written and is being written now.”
You’ve got to become thoroughly familiar with the entire field. You’ve got to know everything, because otherwise you’re going to write what you think is a great story, which has been done 17 times before. It’s going to be submitted and it’s going to be bounced right back, because who needs it again? So you cannot step on anyone else’s toes, you’ve got to come up with a new idea.
But how do you come up with a new idea? This is between you and God.
Let’s take a tired old theme like time travel. Now Wells started the whole shtick with The Time Machine and it’s been done over and over again since. So if you want to write a time-travel story, you have to come up with a new idea. How do you know if it’s a new idea unless you’ve read all the time travel stories that have been done before you?
So in addition to the drudgery of writing, there is first the drudgery of preparation. You must prepare! You can put in years and years of preparation for one story and then you go on preparing for the next story or novel or whatever it is. It is not only tough putting words on paper but the prep is tough too.
I was never obsessed with this business of Marilyn Monroe saying, “Come into my arms, daddy!” or anything like that. All I wanted to do was to be original, so people would say “Wow, hey, did you read that story by whateverhisnameis? Wasn’t that a killer?” That was my whole obsession.
I had a Chicago client, I’ve forgotten the name of the show and the name of my client, but he wrote to my producer on the show, very bitterly, a letter which killed me. He said, “For God’s sake, tell Bester to stop being so original. I just want nice second-rate scripts!”
Pohl: Nothing has changed; I’ve just been through two painful television experiences. They asked if I would do a television series, and I said positively not, because all American television is based on series — things like Star Trek — you get into the same spaceship every week, you “boldly” go through the infinite and Mr Spock’s ears get a little longer and Captain Kirk gets a little stranger. It gets tiresome.
So they said, “Well, what would you propose?”
And I said, “Well the BBC has done some very interesting anthology series and you could do what the BBC did ten years ago and take science-fiction stories and adapt them and do one a week — in which way you can conserve one of the greatest attributes of science fiction which is its variety.
“You’re not stuck with one stupid galaxy — you can invent your own, make it up week after week, do anything you like.”
They said, “What a marvelous original idea. Let’s talk about it,” and we made an appointment.
They said: “We talked to NBC about your proposal and they are very high on it with one little exception. It can’t be an anthology series.”
I said, “Well, that deprives me of most of my interest in it, but maybe we could do something that will look like a series but we could actually do different stories every week,” — which is what they do anyhow but they distort and misshape them so they fit the series idea. And I talked to them about a concept I had which involved cloning, and they said, “Great idea.”
We arranged for another meeting and I came to that, and they said, “Your idea has really knocked them dead at NBC with the exception of this one little thing, they want the same characters week after week.”
So I went through about four very painful months, at the end of which time I had written a treatment and was supposed to write a script. And I declined to write the script. What is coming out of it is something called The Clone Master, which has now been written (by someone else) and filmed, and if it goes on the air, they’ll have to give me money.
I think it will be done here in the UK, probably on ITV, sometime next fall or next spring, because I think it will be done this fall in America. And when it’s on ITV, if you really like original and brilliant pointed writing with great depth, compassion and interest, I recommend you watch BBC that night.
To be continued.