Part 7 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Pohl: I want to tell you something about this arrogance that you were talking about. It is not just editors, although the best in science fiction have been pretty insufferable in one way or another. We’ve mentioned Horace Gold, who was also demented. John Campbell clearly had a very decisive personality and impressed it on everybody around him all the time.
Some years ago two psychologists decided they wanted to find out what science-fiction writers were like. They sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of science-fiction writers and asked them to answer the sort of questions you get on psychological-testing papers. How do you feel about your mother and this and that. And from these they prepared a group psychological profile of science fiction writers.
They compared it with a similar group profile for some other kind of writers and for a third group of people. They found out that the science fiction writers were in many ways similar to most human beings! There were a couple of differences, and one was in what is called “aggressive” versus “withdrawn” “cyclothymia.”
Bester: What is “cyclothymia”?
Pohl: It’s a kind of lunacy. [Editor’s note: Cycling mood swings, but short of actual bipolar affective disorder.] But the question was not whether you had it, but if you had it which way you would go. Withdrawn cyclothymic people are more or less passive and tend to let things go; they overlook something that is wrong. The people who tend the other way are stubborn and won’t take nothing from nobody, and have their own opinions which you’re not going to change with an ax!
And science fiction writers were like that — the stubbornest, most difficult human beings alive!
Audience: How do writers get along with their readerships?
Bester: Fine, splendid. People ask me questions, and I answer them. People ask for autographs and I sign them. People want to talk to me. They’d like to be writers, so l try to help as hard as l can. I get along fine with readers.
Fred, have you ever been attacked by a reader?
Pohl: Not physically, no! But I went to a meeting in Boston some years ago; it was a Mensa meeting, and I was supposed to talk about science fiction and discuss it with somebody else, and this person came up to me and handed me a copy of one of my books.
I said, “Oh, you want my autograph.”
And he said, “No, I want to give it back to you. I hate it. I don’t want it in my possession.” And that’s the closest I ever came to being attacked. Of course, I started out as a fan.
Bester: So did I. I read what’s his name’s Amazing Stories when I was only that high. I couldn’t even afford to buy any. I used to read it on the newsstand. Until they chased me, and I’d come back five minutes later and I’d finish the story.
Pohl: Well, I didn’t do that. I bought them in secondhand stores and got them for a nickel. I identify more closely with readers than I do with most writers. I still read science fiction for pleasure. Not all of it, because who can? 1,200 books a year is more than I can handle. But when I have finished reading what I have to read professionally in science fiction, I read some just for fun.
Bester: Fortunately I don’t have to read it professionally. I read it just for fun, and I do read science fiction regularly.
Alas, there is not as much fun for me today because now that I’m a professional writer, always in the back of the mind is the critical writer, saying “Oh man, you loused that scene, you could have done it better.” That kind of thing kills a lot of stories for me. But occasionally a beaut comes along.
Audience: What do you see as the future of science fiction? Where will sf go in the next fifty years?
Pohl: First off, science fiction has been growing in interest and in numbers of people involved in it pretty regularly every year since I can remember. And I think that will go on happening.
It seems to be affected by events like Star Trek and Star Wars and Close Encounters — they bring in a lot of people to the films, but they don’t have much to do with the main body of science fiction. More and more of it may appear on television and less and less in the printed word, because we’re raising a planet of functional illiterates as it is, it seems. But enough people can manage to puzzle out the words on the page to keep us going.
As to the kinds of stories, to the content, what I said about the obstinacy and individuality of science-fiction writers is very true. And I don’t think you can predict what will happen because they are so dissimilar, so various.
Alfie and I both write science fiction but neither of us could write the other’s books. Alfie’s The Demolished Man —” — and many other books — have always impressed me, but they’re not anything I could write. And what I write about would be fairly hard for someone else to do, because a lot of what any writer has to say is his own view of the world. And the better the book, the more it is personal to that writer — personal and specific and not something someone else could have done.
So some new Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or John Brunner or Alfie Bester will come along and write something and change the whole scene for science fiction because of his personal stubborn individualism and then other people will copy it. But I don’t know what that will be until he does it.
Audience: Do you see any major talents emerging in the ’70s?
Pohl: Yes, there are a great many major talents emerging in the ’70s and what has pleased and fascinated me is that so many of them are female. When I first began reading and writing science fiction it was like a monastery! It was an all-male group — we didn’t know women existed. There were no women fans in the Futurians — at least not in the early stages. There were one or two writers, but they were people like Leslie F. Stone — and who knows whether Leslie is male or female? — and C.L. Moore, as Catherine Moore described herself to cover this great lack in her that made her female! And all that has changed.
No woman writer has been in any way handicapped by being female in science fiction in the last 10 to 15 years, with one single exception. Ursula Le Guin was once asked to disguise her female identity by calling herself U.K. Le Guin, but the magazine was Playboy, so there are special rules about that. They didn’t want it known that women wrote the stuff for the men. But of the writers of the ’70s, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, half a dozen others, James Tiptree Jr. — who is a woman named Alice Sheldon — are among the greatest. Ted Sturgeon said in an article a couple of years ago that of the six writers who impressed him the most, only one was not a woman and that was Tiptree, whom he didn’t know was a woman at the time. But there are lots of good people of both genders coming up.
Stay tuned for the eighth and final part.