As I mentioned in the short piece I wrote about Alfie Bester, he and I had a joint talk for a bunch of English fans thirty-odd years or so ago. To my total amazement, some of them recently came up with a tape of that discussion. They transcribed it, and I thought some of you might like to read it here in the blog.

Here’s what Peter Roberts’ fanzine, Checkpoint, reported at the time:

TYNESIDE “FUTUREWORLDS”: (Ritchie Smith reports on the Newcastle sf film festival) “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl spoke at the Tyneside Cinema for some two hours on June 26th. Bester was smallish, plump, larger-than-life, and explosively friendly in a Hollywood sort of way, right down to calling some people ‘darling’. Pohl looked more literary: ectomorphic, tall, and restrained, full of good anecdotes, like Bester (sadly, too many of them were familiar from Pohl’s essay in Hell’s Cartographers). Afterwards they signed books — Bester’s dedications were especially witty — and the great men and a large minority of North-East fandom went off for a Chinese meal.”


Frederik Pohl     Alfred Bester

   Frederik Pohl       Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation

Recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, by Kevin Williams. Transcript by Sue Williams, edited by Neil Jones and Kevin Williams. Originally published in Rob Jackson’s fanzine Inca 5, December 2009. Additional editing here by Leah A. Zeldes.

Pohl: Let me tell you about Alfie Bester. I’ve known him for a long time, and I first encountered him when I was 19 years old and editing a magazine called Astonishing Stories, and I bought a couple of stories of Alfie’s because I liked them. And then, some years later, Cyril Kornbluth and I had written a book called The Space Merchants, which I sort of hoped might win a prize, but it was beaten out by something called The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.

A little while later, Cyril and I were working on another novel — I think it was Search the Sky. We’d written a couple of others by then, and I’d just begun to edit a thing called Star Science Fiction Stories — a series of anthologies of original science fiction stories. I brought home a story by Alfie Bester that I had just accepted for Star. It was called “Disappearing Act,” and I showed it to Cyril while we were working on our own book.

He gave me a resentful look and said, “You bring me this to read when we are writing that!”

[The novel we were writing was pretty much space opera, while Alfie’s story was a literate gem. But I didn’t explain this in the conversation, which led to a mixup. —FP]

Bester: Cyril didn’t like it?

Pohl: He loved it. He thought it was so much superior to what we were doing that it embarrassed him.

It’s been going on like that — our paths keep crossing, and he keeps doing this superlative work, and now I’ll let him speak for himself.

Bester: The one thing that you must understand is that we admire each other profoundly. I cannot tell you how many times I have read a story or novel of Fred’s and said, “Why in Christ’s name couldn’t I have written that?” — and then run into Fred and I tell him. The truth of the matter is that there is no rivalry between us at all, there is nothing but admiration.

We are rather like the high baroque musicians: We borrow from each other, we learn from each other, we admire each other, we do the same things, or different things, and have a hell of a ball.

Now Fred’s novel which he wrote with Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is, I think, the finest novel ever written in the history of science fiction. It is a brilliant piece of work. Many brilliant things have followed it, but this came along when everybody was obsessed with Doc Smith space opera, which has its own charm — it’s great fun — and suddenly comes this realistic extrapolation of what American life, American advertising, American ecology and American psychosis will lead to eventually.

Horace Gold ran it as a three parter in Galaxy. Gravy Planet, he called it. A tremendous piece of work — exciting, ravishing. I will never forget the scene where that crazy broad with the needle is giving him the works. Fred, that was outrageously brilliant.

Pohl: That scene was all Cyril’s but I’ll accept the credit.

Alfie is one of the greatest writers science fiction has ever had and he is well aware of it — he just wants to be told! Everybody knows the novels, but there was a period in the early ’50s when in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction month after month there was a leading novelette by Alfred Bester.

Bester: Always with the wrong title!

Pohl: Always with the wrong title but always good! They were just brilliant, one after another.

Bester: I once sent two stories to Mick McComas and Tony Boucher (at F&SF) — they had asked for them, of course — and they switched the titles on the stories. I stink on titles, I really do, I’m terrible.

But the point I’m going to make very strongly is the greatness of science fiction. To my mind, it is the last, the last outpost of freedom of literature in the States — I can’t speak for England. In science fiction, we can do what no one else can do in any other medium.

I speak as a magazine writer, novelist and scriptwriter. The constraints of commercial fiction in the States in television, in films, in radio, you name it, are so severe that there is very little you can do. This is one of the reasons why I have written science fiction off and on all of my life. Quite simply because if I come up with an idea which rather enchants me, I would very much like to develop it and do it, so that people would see it and hear it.

If my producer, my director, the client says “No, no, it’s too expensive, no it’s too far out, people won’t understand it, ah forget it, give us something a little less,” then I have to turn to science fiction. In science fiction, you can do anything you please, and God knows the artist needs a free hand. The greatness of science fiction is not the science, not the prediction of the future, not anything you want to name — the greatness is that it is wide open, and we can do exactly as we damn please, and that story will run somewhere, somehow, and you will have your audience, and you will get feedback. And after all, a writer without an audience is no writer at all; you’ve got to have people that you are entertaining.

Pohl: We have been talking mostly about the techniques of science fiction, I think, and the forms of writing of science fiction. But as Alfie says, there is content too.

In America 20 years ago, during the Senator Joe McCarthy era, there was not an awful lot of political free speech in America. Most of the newspaper editors and political leaders were running for the storm cellars because they didn’t want to get in the way of “Tail-gunner Joe.” And at that time science fiction was saying all sorts of revolutionary, critical, socially penetrating things — to the extent that an old friend of mine who was then minister of a church in Los Angeles used to sell copies of Galaxy and the other science-fiction magazines outside the church after services, because he said it was the only free speech in America.

And this has also been true in other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe; there is much more freedom for two classes of writers — science fiction writers and poets — than for anyone else. And partly it’s because most people don’t understand what they are talking about, anyhow.

Bester: I’ve always said that science fiction is the only poetry existing today! But the hell of the situation is that we must always experiment. Don’t think for a moment that a writer sits down and says, “Aha, I have a story, it’s going to be A B C D E F G, etc.” A writer has an idea, he’s reaching for something, he’s got a feeling about something, so he writes three or four pages and, no, he hasn’t hit it yet, and so he falls back, regroups and writes another opening three or four pages and says, “Yeah, now maybe I’m on the way,” and you sort of tippy-toe your way through a story and then who is as surprised as you when at the end you discover that there’s a hell of a lot more than you thought there was to start with.

But you can’t do that for a magazine like Holiday, for a commercial magazine, you can’t do that for any number of the television shows that I’ve written for. Which raises a very interesting point, the economies of science fiction. You know radio and television and national magazines have priced themselves out of experiment. They can’t afford to permit people to experiment, to invest money in young writers who are trying to experiment and willing to fail.

I’m the last of the generation of writers who came up through pulp magazines and comics, writing comic-book scripts, you know, things like Captain Marvel and Green Lantern and that nonsense. I was able to experiment because it was cheap. What the hell did they pay me for a script? 70 dollars. Big deal. Of course, in those days, you could live for a week on 70 dollars. But even so, the point is that nowadays everything is so god-damned expensive that kids can no longer experiment except in science fiction, and that doesn’t pay all that well.

You know about that, Fred. How tight is the budget?

Pohl: The budgets on science fiction magazines are pretty constrictive, although they have gone up quite recently. You are lucky if you get 3 or 4 cents for every word you write and it takes a lot of words to feed a family if you are going to get that for each one.

But generally speaking that’s only the beginning of it. These days, magazines play a smaller and smaller part in the finances of science-fiction writing. What happens is that stories are collected in a book or it’s a serial which turns into a novel and gets published here in hard cover and paper and gets translated into French, German, Spanish, Latvian, Esperanto and Martian and all the other languages you can think of. Some books have been translated into 50 or more languages!

Bester: I was translated into Braille.

Pohl: I was translated into Latvian!

Bester: You got me!

Pohl: And it just goes on, but for a writer to attempt to survive on the magazines would be impossible and was impossible for most of us even though we were somehow doing it 20 or more years ago. It was a matter of writing as fast as you could and rushing the story to the editor and hounding the publisher to get the check and going back and paying the mortgage, or part of the mortgage, or promising to pay the mortgage.

Bester: A lot of the output of many splendid writers was marred because they were writing against the mortgage.

Pohl: There’s no question that it happened. But it’s not quite the same now in science fiction. There’s a magazine in America called The Artists’ and Poets’ Newsletter — it’s published by the American branch of P.E.N., I think — and about two years ago, they ran a survey to find out how many American writers were really making anything out of it and they came to the conclusion that in all of America there were only about 100 persons who were able to support themselves by their writing.

They were taking about mainstream writers; they weren’t talking about category writers such as science fiction or whatever. I know of at least 100 science-fiction writers who are supporting themselves. It has turned out to be a significant part of what is going on. There were 1,200 science-fiction books published in America last year. Right now there are 14 paperback publishers in England bringing out science fiction books — I don’t know how many a month but I think it must be upwards of 30 to 40, which is possibly 500 a year, and the number grows all the time.

But this field has been increasing, not only in the amount of money involved but in readership, for a long time.

When I first began reading science fiction, we were a little band of “Cellar Christians” huddled against the outside world. Nobody, not one person in 100 in the world, knew what science fiction was, except us. And now, say “science fiction” to anyone and at least they’ve heard the term.

And Alfie and I have just come from something that would have been impossible to dream of a while ago, a congress of persons professionally connected with science fiction from all over the world. We had three people from the Soviet Union, two from Hungary and a few from Yugoslavia. There was a rumor there were a couple of Australians there, though I never set eyes on them. There was one large contingent missing — the Japanese. There are a great many Japanese writers.

But nevertheless, here are these people from all over gathered for the sole purpose of discussing science fiction, the professional standards involved, the modes of publication, how to get money out of each other and all these other important subjects. And that could not have existed even ten years ago I think.

To be continued.

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  1. Tim Walters says:

    Bester’s dedications were especially witty

    I once asked him to sign a book of his that I had just bought. When he opened it, it turned out (to my mortification) that he had already signed it at some point. Without a second’s hesitation, he wrote “That man is an impostor!” and signed it again.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    This is great stuff. I hope there’s a way to get it into the revised auto-bio.

    The stuff about the McCarthy is especially poignant. It almost makes me nostalgic. Now-adays, we’re up againt something more diabolical than fear and repression; truth and insight have to struggle to be recognized in a media environment that is expert at distraction and demonization.

  3. John H says:

    Fascinating conversation – can’t wait to read the rest! It also seems like a good piece to follow-up on, some 30-odd years later – i.e., how do those same statistics look today…

  4. A.R.Yngve says:

    I cannot express my gratitude for reading this discussion between two all-time greats.

  5. Jason Block says:

    That’s interesting about how SF managed to fly under the radar of McCarthy to some extent, seemingly because people didn’t take it seriously. In that case it was an advantage.

  6. JohnArmstrong says:

    You can plainly see from this what kind of credit-hog Fred is ….

    “That scene was all Cyril’s but I’ll accept the credit.”

    That guy who wrote the Kornbluth book was right! I’m sure the next edition will have this included: “Pohl has even publicly admitted ….”