Part 6 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Pohl: I’ve just realized something very significant. Of all the science fiction writers in the English-speaking world who began in the late ’30s and ’40s who have survived since and done reasonably well, there are only two who were not largely and directly influenced by John Campbell. That’s you and me!
John Campbell is the fellow who took science fiction by the scruff of the neck in the late ’30s and changed it. Made it much better. And people like Isaac Asimov and van Vogt and Bob Heinlein, and almost everybody else who really became significant writers around that period owe a great debt to Campbell. They were published primarily in his magazine and got a great deal of advice and guidance from him. And I know I didn’t.
John Campbell was a good friend of mine but he had this one tacky personality trait — he never bought any stories from me! I kept trying but he never would buy them. How about you, Alfie?
Bester: Oh, I had an experience with Campbell! As Fred has said, he really took science fiction by the scruff of the neck and shaped it into something really worthwhile. Up until then it had just been hack writing by guys who were translating westerns into science fiction. Campbell changed all that. He was a great man. I worshipped Campbell, of course.
I wrote a story called “Oddy and Id.” The premise of the story simply was that we are not consciously in control of our actions but this deep Id, this well of primal urges within us, is really in control. I submitted the story to Campbell and got a phone call from him — I’d never met him.
“I want to talk to you about the story. I want to buy it but I want some changes. Will you come and see me?”
“Oh God, yes, Mr. Campbell.” It was when their office was out in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Now, you’ve got to picture me, a guy from Madison Avenue writing scripts; all I know is the networks, the advertising agencies and all that jazz, it’s what I’m used to. I’m also used to the rates that they pay. But I have to meet Campbell.
I go out to Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I come to this goddamn printing plant, this factory, expecting to be ushered into the great office of this great man. But I go into this tacky little office which is about two feet by four feet and here is this guy who is about the size of what we would call in American football, a defensive tackler. He’s about 19 feet high, 47 feet wide, a towering guy. He sits behind his desk and I squirm into the one visitors’ chair.
He says, “Now about your story. Freud is finished!”
I said, “What, Mr. Campbell?”
He said, “It’s all been exploded, it’s dead.”
I said, “Mr. Campbell, do you mean the rival schools of psychiatry? I know about them.”
“No, psychiatry is finished today. You don’t know about it? Read these galleys.”
And he hands me the galley proof of the first piece by L. Ron Hubbard on Dianetics! There are about 20 of these long galleys, and I say to him, “Gee, this is an awful lot to read, Mr. Campbell. Can I take the set home?”
“No,” he said, “this is the only set. I am reworking the entire magazine, it’s that important.”
I said, “All right,” and I sit there and I read the first galley of this nonsense, and I begin to shake with laughter, but I keep my mouth shut. I read the second galley and I’ve had it. But he’s got a very sharp eye, and although he’s talking with Catherine Tarrant, his assistant, about other things, I know he’s watching me. So I don’t read them. I just allow enough time to look at them while I’m thinking about how the Yankees will make out or whatever.
I finish the galleys and put them down, and he said, “Well, what do you think of it? Will he win the Nobel Prize?”
I said, “For literature?”
He said, “He will win the Nobel Peace Prize.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Campbell. Why?”
“Wouldn’t the man who wiped out war win the Nobel Peace Prize?”
“Yes, Mr. Campbell.”
“Dianetics will wipe out war. Come, we’ll have lunch.” So I go downstairs with him to this tacky little lunchroom, and we sit down. I have a liverwurst sandwich on rye and a Coke. He said to me, “You’re blocking it.”
I said, “No, Mr. Campbell, I have a wide open mind. I welcome all new ideas.”
“No,” he said.
Now here I am munching my liverwurst sandwich. He stood up over me and he said, “I’m going to clear you. I’m going to help you clear your mind. I want you to go back, back, back.”
“Yes, Mr. Campbell.”
He said, “I want you to think of that moment. You have never forgotten it.”
“What moment is that, Mr. Campbell?”
“The moment when your mother tried to abort you with a button-hook!”
“Mr. Campbell, I wasn’t born yet.”
“The fetus remembers! You remember! Go back! Think! Clear yourself! Clear yourself!” he said to me.
And I’m sitting there, I’m shaking, and I’m thinking, “Dear God, don’t let me laugh in his face, please don’t let me laugh in his face.”
I said, “Mr. Campbell, you’re absolutely right, but it’s too painful, I can’t think of it.”
He said, “I knew it,” and sat down. “I could see you shaking.”
Well, of course, what he wanted me to do with that particular story was to take out all references to Freud, who no longer existed. Which I did, and he changed the title. Can you understand why I’ve had nothing but contempt for that man as a man all my life? He was a demented creature but a great science fiction editor — really great. But: never go backstage! Never go to their offices and talk to them. You’ll find out!
Pohl: I went to see John at about the same time when he was in the throes of having discovered Dianetics. And he told me the button-hook bit too!
I said, “Actually, that may be so but I just don’t have the memory of it, and that’s not a problem for me.”
And he said, “Well, do you ever have migraine headaches?”
And I said, “No, I’ve never had a migraine headache,” and he said, “Most people do, and I know how they’re caused — they’re caused by the fetal memory. Because in the womb of the mother, there are these rhythmic sounds. There’s this slow one” — the food gurgling down her intestinal canal or something — “and a rapid one which is her heartbeat.”
And he beat them out simultaneously on the desk and I got the damnedest headache I ever had in my life. I said to John, “You’ve done it, John.”
“Ah hah, now I will fix you up. How old are you?”
And I said “45,” which I wasn’t — I was 28 or 29.
He said, “What happened to you when you were 45?”
I said, “John, I don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet.”
So he said, “What happened to you when you were 45 months? 45 days? 45 minutes?” and so on. None of it worked. I still had the headache. I went to bed with it and it wasn’t till the next morning that I got rid of it.
Still more to come.