Ben Bova

Ben Bova

In the beginning of his career, young Ben Bova had a good job writing about the hardware his employer, Avco-Everett Research Laboratory, dealt with, but a yearning to write something less confining, particularly science fiction. When he began trying his hand at that he got a welcome from John Campbell, arguably the top editor in the field, who was fond of nuts-and-bolts science fiction anyway. But even that wasn’t quite satisfying.

In Milford, Pennsylvania, three established writers — James Blish, damon knight and Judy Merril — had just banded together to start the first in the long subsequent series of Milford Science-Fiction Writers Conferences. Ben signed up and became one of their early graduates.

For those unfamiliar with writers’ conferences, it often seems that even the best of them appear to be almost as much encounter groups as writers’ tutorials. Enrollees are expected to spend one or more weeks in shared housing, to each write a new story of some kind at regular intervals, and then to sit in a circle setup to have other participants discuss his or her story, sometimes to the point of exploring what hidden emotions had caused him or her to write it. It is a pressure-cooker environment and it was my personal observation that many writers who had gone through the experience — Cyril Kornbluth and Algis Budrys — for example, went through post-Milford periods of writing little or nothing for a time.

I still think that is a danger for those attending writers’ conferences, but as far as Ben Bova was concerned I could not have been more wrong. Whether because of Milford or simply because some of the synapses in his brain re-hooked themselves into new patterns, beginning around that period, his fiction began to show deeper insights into his characters, and thus were better books.

Or it simply may have been that he went through an even more demanding tutorial when John Campbell unexpectedly died, and Street & Smith hired Ben to replace him. I have long held that being an editor of other people’s stories is one of the best ways to improve your own writing. (I’m pretty sure it helped for me.)

Anyway, Ben was a great disappointment to Street & Smith. Not as an editor; he kept up the standing of the magazine. May even have improved it, as when Ben manumitted the writers from the I-hate-smut fervor of John Campbell’s (and also Ben Bova’s) associate editor, Kay Tarrant, who had made it her calling to expunge anything that hinted at the possibility of excretion or intercourse from every story, a step which added some parle to the magazine. No, what disappointed the elder gods was just tenure. They had hoped for an editor who would stay on the job for thirty or forty years, like Campbell, and through all that period continue to act as the small but welcome cash cow Astounding/Analog had always been for them. That didn’t happen. Bob Guccione came along with an offer Ben couldn’t refuse to become fiction editor (later managing editor) of Omni, where he stayed until the magazine itself died

Which was probably a good thing for Ben’s writing career, because it freed him to put in his time writing the more than 100 successful books that now grace his shelves.

5 Comments

  1. Todd Mason says:

    Campbell might’ve welcomed Bova, but it was your other colleague Cele Goldsmith who actually published early fiction and nonfiction by Bova in good quantity in her AMAZING…

  2. Stephen B says:

    When I started reading Analog in the late ’60s, Campbell was still the editor, but the magazine was owned by Conde Nast. I see Wikipedia says “Condé Nast Publications bought Street & Smith in August 1959,[26] though the change was not reflected in Analog’s masthead until February 1962.”

    I check out this blog frequently. Fascinating stuff.

  3. TAD says:

    Fred: Hoo boy, for a minute I thought this was going to be an obituary, but I’m sure glad it wasn’t. The first letter I ever got from an SF mag editor was from Ben Bova — God knows how he got through my SF-fan ravings back in those days. I thought he did a great job with ANALOG in the mid-’70s: he printed a lot of great stuff. ANALOG was the first mag I ever subscribed to. Thanks for the memories….

  4. Robert Nowall says:

    Alas, it was Conde-Nast, not Street & Smith, that owned Analog in those days. According to Wikipedia (which I just looked up), they bought Street & Smith in 1959, though it didn’t show up on the masthead until February 1962.

    I remember Ben Bova’s tenure as editor quite fondly—my subscription to Analog started just after he took over. Also I made my first manuscript submissions then. He rejected every one—and I realize in retrospect that he did me an enormous favor.

  5. Carl Glover says:

    I can well see how a writers’ conference experience such as you describe could be at least temporarily discouraging. I’ve never believed that having one’s work dissected and efforts impugned in such a fashion could possibly be helpful to the creative process. Bova was probably more or less immune to its malign influences and just coincidentally began to produce better work afterwards. I’ve never attended a writers’ conference, but your comparison with the negative effects of “encounter groups” is probably apt. As a clinical psychologist, I long ago rejected the encounter group experience as having any therapeutic value. In fact, quite the contrary for many people.