Part 3 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Pohl: Now, getting back to where ideas come from, I’d like to hear from you, Alfie. I want to know where you get your ideas from. Specifically I want to know where you get the ideas for something like The Demolished Man. What persuaded you to write it in the first place?
Bester: Horace Gold! I kind of remember that story vaguely. I was writing the Nick Carter show, and I was having a rough time. I was having trouble with his agent. I was having all kinds of problems. It was a tough show to write, but it was a nice check, so you don’t complain about that.
Horace Gold had just started Galaxy, and he called me. I’d known Horace for years. He said, “Alfie, I want you to write for me,” and I said, “Oh, Horace, come on, will you? I’m so involved with this show, it’s eating up my time.”
He said, “No, no, no, come on,” and he would keep on noodging me week in week out. We’d talk on the phone and stuff, and finally I said “All right, Horace.” I’ve got to get him off my back, I’ll submit some ideas. Now I submitted four or five ideas — I can’t remember all of them, it’s so long ago.
I should explain first that I’ve been trained as a detective-story writer and adventure writer and a comic-book writer and so on — always to do it the hard way. You do it the hard way, if you want A to get to Z, he just can’t get there, he’s got to hit conflict B off which he caroms into conflict C, D, E, F, G and so on. What you do is you set up an impossible situation for you as a writer and then you solve it, and that makes a story. So I set up some impossible situations.
This was very early in radio and television writing, and I practically invented for myself the open-story technique. The closed-story technique is the Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, in which a murder is committed and whoever the detective is goes around picking up clues from various people. You don’t know what the hell is going on and at the very end the big surprise comes and he, the butler, whatever, dunnit. That’s the closed mystery.
At the time, I had got rather tired of it. I was carrying too many shows and stealing my own scripts from myself, and looking through my file of scripts, I found one which I thought I could pinch for the other show, and reading through it I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’ve written all the wrong scenes. I have not written the action as it happened — I have written the result of the action and the detective’s puzzlement in how to interpret the result of the action.”
So I said to myself, “Why don’t you do a script in which you write the action and let the detective be puzzled? And we’ll watch them both. That’s a different story.”
Of course, it’s a cliché now; they’re doing it all the time. But this was years ago — back then it was brand new. I thought, I’ll do an open story for Horace, so I’ll set up something really rough.
So one of the suggestions I made was, “Horace, what if we have police equipped with time machines? So if a crime is committed, they can go back in time to the very beginning of the crime and ferret out a criminal. And how can a guy get around them, get away with it?”
That was the idea. The second idea was to do with ESP, mind reading, and there was a third and a fourth, each of which I had developed ever so slightly, just to give him an idea of what it was.
And he received the ideas and called me back and said, “Hey, Alf, now come on! Time machines! That’s old hat! ESP! That’s old hat, too! But why don’t we combine the idea of the police and a criminal not with a time machine but with mind reading?”
I said, “Sounds interesting, Horace.”
So we began to talk about it. I remember saying to him once on the phone, “Now look Horace, I cannot have a detective protagonist who can read minds. That’s unfair, it makes him special. I don’t want a special detective; he’s got to be just an average guy.”
Horace said, “Alf, what you gotta do is to build an entire society in which there are people who are espers, who can read minds, and people who cannot. That’s what you gotta do!”
And so the book developed and developed. Months and months of talk back and forth before I began to write it. We finally decided I would extrapolate a society — rather like a black/white society — in which there were various ethnic groups. One ethnic group is the mind-reading group, the other is the non-mind-reading group, and out of that comes social conflict, and so the whole thing builds.
This goddamn book was six months in preparation before I actually began to write it. And that’s how The Demolished Man came about.
But going back to how ideas are generated, one of my favorites was a story called “Fondly Fahrenheit.” I’m going to give you the genesis of that story. I remember this vividly, point by point.
I was reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. He mentioned that a Negro slave had been executed in Missouri for molesting, criminally assaulting and murdering a young girl. He had been hung for it, and Twain went on to say that this Negro slave had committed the same crime in Virginia and his owner had levanted him out of Virginia to Mississippi because the slave was too valuable to be destroyed.
And I thought, “There’s a hell of a story in that, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a hell of a story.” So I very carefully listed it in my “Gimmick” book and that was that.
I have hundreds and hundreds of fragments of ideas in this Gimmick book that I’ve been keeping all my life as a writer. And I leaf through the book all the time, looking for various things. I came across this months later, looked at it, and I was open at the time so I started to write the story. I got through the first scene or so and then I was hung up.
I knew I couldn’t write it as an anti-America story before our Civil War, because I knew nothing about the period — so it couldn’t really be a case of actual slavery. I couldn’t write it in the present because we don’t have chattel slavery; we have economic slavery today.
So I had to place the story in the future. Rather than a human being, I made the slave an android, a chemical human being. And I wrote the first five or six pages and came to a complete stop. My problem was this: “So all right, this android slave commits murders and we catch him. The end.” That’s not doing it the hard way, man! That’s nothing at all, so I put it away and forgot about it.
Much later on, I was looking through my notes and I thought, “Alfie, you’ve not answered the question, ‘Why does the android murder?’” Theoretically, if a technical creature is manufactured and educated, it will be conditioned never to harm any human being, never to harm or destroy anything. Why does it break its conditioning?” I thought about that, made a few more notes and put it away again.
A year later, going through my Gimmick book again, I came across something — a little point that in the U.S., in New York City, during the summer when the weather gets very hot, the homicide rate increases drastically. And then suddenly it hit me. I thought, “Ah, that’s why the android commits murder — when the temperature gets too hot.”
I went back to the notes and what I had drafted and started the whole thing again in terms of temperature, same story but now we’re varying between various planets in the galaxy, some of which are cold and some are hot. On the cold planets, it’s well behaved; on the hot planets, it goes berserk. I began to run through it and outline it, and again I came to this block. “All right, so they find out that it murders when the temperature is hot, but that’s a letdown, that’s not the hard way, Alfie, it’s gotta be something more.” I couldn’t figure it out, but there had to be something more.
I put it away again, and I remember I was down at the Holiday office, pacing up and down the corridor worrying about a feature or something, nothing to do with the story, when suddenly out of nowhere this thing hit me. Apparently it had been percolating, cooking at the back of my mind. “Ah! It’s not the android that’s insane, it’s the master that’s insane, and he is projecting his insanity onto the creature!” And, of course, at that point I had my story.
I went home and I wrote it in a couple of days. People say to me, “How long did it take you to write ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’?”
“Jesus Christ! Two years!” So I get around it by saying, “Well, it took me two days to type.”
Ideas come from everywhere, and, as Fred said about his prize-winning novel, you put the pieces together. It may take seven weeks, seven months, seven years, you don’t know. The only point is that you must always be wide open for anything and everything that comes to you. If you hear a fragment of conversation in the street, and it just piques your interest, stay with it — you may not use it now, but you’ll use it sometime in the future and it’ll come in handy. We are pack rats, we are magpies.
Pohl: Yes, we take everything that comes to us. “Where do your ideas come from?” They come from everywhere. Things you read, things people say.
Because science fiction has the word science in it, it often has some relation to what is going on in science. Some of my ideas come from science, but not in an organized way. I don’t say to myself, “Gee, I would love to write a story about time travel, let’s look up what we can find out about time travel.”
But I’m a kind of fan of science — the World Cup doesn’t mean anything to me. I would just as soon they didn’t have it on TV at all. But science is the greatest spectator sport in the world. I mean I love to watch what these people are doing; they’re sending these multimillion-dollar rockets up just to entertain me. They’re putting men on the moon and sending pictures and I appreciate it!
Bester: I did a book on the space program — the scientific satellites. I was down at Goddard, and one of the engineers I’d interviewed came up with this as a charming and true story. He said that he had a problem with one of the particular satellites he was designing. It hung him up for weeks and he couldn’t figure out how to break this problem. Finally, in despair, he gave up. He went home and figured he’d take the weekend off, so that Saturday he took his kid out fishing.
He said, “Believe it or not, my boy made his first cast and I looked at his rod and his reel” — he had a level-wind reel which threads the line back and forth as you reel in — “and,” he said, “it solved my problem!”
And he went right back to Goddard and used the level-wind principle to solve his engineering problem.
So ideas come from everywhere if you are open to them.
To be continued.