Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category
When Harrycon in Ireland came to pass, it was a blast. A couple of dozen top sf writers showed up-— even Alfie Bester, who was getting into the more serious phases of his blindness — as well as numbers of editors, fans and general hangers-on from all sorts of European, North American and South American countries.
And from the Soviet Union a party of four: my own personal best Russian friend, Yuli Kagarlitsky, the USSR’S only author of a scholarly book on science fiction, Shto eta fantastika?; Vasili Zakharchenko, editor of a boy’s magazine that sometimes published translated American sf stories, and paid for them in cash — in rubles and kopecks; a young woman with an unclear role; and a dark, heavyset man from the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic who claimed, in Russian, to be a writer of children’s stories but was considered by everyone else to be the group’s KGB minder. He didn’t appear particularly menacing His principal activity seemed to be sitting in the hotel lobby and watching Irish TV.
Harry Harrison (the Harry of Harrycon) had planned a program for the opening day which mostly comprised introductory remarks by the principal attendees, starting with our Soviet guests. At first that did not go well, because the first up was Comrade Probable KGB, who spoke, fortunately quite briefly, in his own tongue, which even the Russians had trouble understanding. After a few moments of everybody looking at everybody else the young woman got up from where she was seated at the back of the audience to say, in English, that he had just told us that this was a historic event and he hoped it might be a first step toward a better understanding between our peoples. Everybody clapped briefly.
Next was Vasili, who also elected to speak in Russian and was not at all brief. By then we had a system going, with Vassili pausing frequently to let the young woman put his remarks into English. That was understandable, if bit tedious, because Vassili too chose to comment on the historic aspects of the meeting.
Then another problem came up. There was a small group from Brazil who had managed to get themselves to the meeting in spite of the fact that none of them spoke English. No one present but them spoke Portuguese, either. Gay Haldeman solved that crisis for us. She spoke idiomatic Spanish, and so then after the young woman had put Vassili’s remarks into English, Gay, turning around in her chair to face the Brazilians behind her, gave them a Spanish translation, which one of them understood enough to pass on the gist to his fellows.
Well, that was amusing, but Yuli had yet to speak. Fortunately, he chose to do it in his quite serviceable English, and, even better, what he talked about was how he discovered sf, first through H. G. Wells, whom he called “The Master,” and then, one by one, the great Americans. That was at least a subject everyone was interested in, and when Yuli was followed by Brian Aldiss, everything was going smoothly at last, both then and for the next day.
Then Harry laid on a fine Irish dinner for everybody, complete with some moderately fine Irish wines, and a small Irish orchestra, playing on traditional Irish instruments, to entertain us. This they did, although to be accurate I should say that the most entertaining part might have been when the musicians let some of the authors try to play their instruments. I got the Irish bagpipe. After considerable experimenting, I did get a couple of blood-curdling yawps out of the thing.
(Oh, that bit about the Irish wine. I should mention that a few centuries earlier, when Europe was enjoying the Medieval warm period, Irish people did make wine out of grapes they grew locally, and apparently the art was not entirely lost.)
Most of us hung around another day or so to see the sights of Dublin — some to check the museum’s collection of early books, others to recap Leopold Bloom’s 24-hour roam around the city in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses — and to get to know each other a little better. All in all, I would call it one of the best cons ever.
Most of the early writers of science fiction seemed to be either amateurs who began writing sf when they knew of no market for it, or professional writers on mostly quite other themes, who jumped over to science fiction for its freedom of plotting. Then it became more and more true that the larval stage of the sf writer was the fan, beginning with a scant handful of deeply committed fans who graduated to making the stories others would read.
Two of the earliest to make the transition were Poul Anderson and me. Both of us even married female fans, when such creatures began to appear. I have to admit he did a better job of it than I, though. My first fan marriage lasted only a bit over three years; Poul’s, to Karen, survived until his death, from cancer, in 2001
What both of us learned from early fan activities is that everybody should take his turn in the barrel, which is why we both served a term or two as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Poul’s was constructive and unmarked by major disruptions. Unfortunate, because as a result of one of the thoughtful and kindly things Poul did, mine wasn’t.
It happened that a SFWA member named George Zebrowski had suggested to Poul that it would be a well received gesture if he conferred an honorary membership on the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. SFWA hadn’t done much conferring of honors on anybody at that time, but Poul knew that Lem had been enthusiastically taken up by the American literary establishment for his satirical science fiction, and obligingly wrote a letter to Lem to tell him he was an honorary SFWAn, saw that news of the ennoblement appeared in appropriate publications and then crossed that matter off his To Do list.
Time passed. Poul honorably completed his time in the barrel and I was elected to replace him. Along about that time Philip José Farmer and others got upset about some highly critical things Lem had said about American sf in general and Farmer’s books in particular, and Philip K. Dick announced that he believed that Lem had somehow conspired to divert some of the zlotys from the Polish translation of Ubik to himself, for which reasons they demanded that SFWA revoke Lem’s honorary membership at once. That was a nuisance to me personally, since it meant that I, as president, would have to do the revoking.
Fortunately an at least vestigially honorable escape turned up. On consulting SFWA’s bylaws, which someone should have done earlier, but didn’t, it turned out that they expressly forbade granting honorary memberships to any person actively qualified for regular voting membership by reason of substantial publication in American media. Lem certainly was so qualified, and therefore his appointment was void.
As then president I wrote a letter, as uncontroversial as I could make it, to Lem, advising him that for the reasons already mentioned his honorary membership had to be withdrawn, but reminding him that he was eligible for regular, active membership. Since there was a theoretical possibility — though an unlikely one in view of his books’ success in the American markets — that, as a Polish citizen, he would be barred by his Marxist government’s laws from sending money abroad, I said I would be glad to pay his dues out of my own pocket.
He wrote back, very politely saying he did not wanted to join SFWA, and with that I assumed the matter was closed. It wasn’t. For several years thereafter, at SFWA business meetings, someone would usually demand that SFWA reopen the question of Lem’s honorary membership, but the matter never got much support from the voting members.
The development of a professional writer is marked by a number of stages, each identified by a particular event. My own development was accelerated by the fact that by the time I was 14 or so I had come to know people — Johnny Michel and Don Wollheim — who had actually sold works to professional science-fiction magazines.
(Well, “sold” is putting it a bit strong, since neither of them had really been paid for their work. In fact, that’ s why they had come to Geegee Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League in the first place; to put pressure on Hugo Gernsback to pay the writers for his Wonder Stories by denouncing him to his most loyal fans, the ones who had joined his club.)
Anyway, I listened to them reverently, and in fact learned a great deal. One of things I learned was that, surprisingly, the editors of science-fiction magazines were in some ways indistinguishable from ordinary human beings. They went to offices to work — well, I knew that because I had discovered on my own the existence of writers’ magazines that actually gave addresses for those offices. I had even experimentally tried mailing one or two of my early stories to one or two of those sf markets. What I learned additionally from Donald and Johnny was that you could go in person to some of those offices, and that some of those editors, sometimes, would actually talk to you.
That particular nugget of information was worth actual cash to me. As I had learned from my study of Writers Digest, I could mail in my stories — and had done so. The catch to that was that I was required to enclose postage for the return trip in the (likely) event of rejection. That had amounted, in the last story I had submitted by mail, to 9¢ in stamps each way, total 18¢. While the cost, if I delivered them in person, would be only a nickel each way for the subway. (Plus, of course, whatever price could be put on my time for the 45 minutes each way it would take for me to do it — but, then, nobody else was offering to buy any of my time at any price.)
That represented a nearly 50-percent reduction in my cost of doing business, or even more — much, much more! — if I had enough stories to submit to make a continuing process out of it. I could, say, take the subway to editor A’s office to pick up rejected story X and at the same time submit new story Y, then walk (no cost for walking) to the office of editor B to try story X on him. And there was no reason for me to limit myself to a single story each way at each office.
The only thing that could prevent me from working at that much greater volume was that I hadn’ t written enough stories to make such economies of scale pay off, and that, boys and girls, is how I became a literary agent.
Who Bashed People With His Wit, Then His Cane
The first manuscript by Keith Laumer that I remember seeing was about an interstellar diplomat named Retief, which caused me to stop reading manuscripts that day to write the author a letter, telling him I was buying the story and adding, “Please write me more stories, lots more stories, about this guy, because I love him.” And Keith did it, too, becoming, I’m pretty sure, one of the three reasons why If, the magazine I published them in, won the Best Prozine Hugo for three years in a row. (The other two reasons? Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories, and Robert Heinlein’s serials.)
I felt pretty proud of myself for recognizing their worth so quickly, but I later learned that he had intended them as a series all along, but planned for the series to run in Cele Goldsmith’s Amazing (and I can’t imagine why Cele, bright as she was, let them go). The thing about Laumer is, first, that he was great at satirizing people he had had a bellyful of, particularly Americans in the diplomatic service. (Keith had served a tour in Burma, which gave him much grist for his mill.) Second, that he had a keen sense of comedy, and, third, that he wrote quickly and well.
Not all of Keith’s sf was part of a series. He wrote stand-alone stories when the spirit moved him, some of them really good. There was one in particular — I’ve forgotten its name — which had to do with a time traveler who, leaving his family behind, travels a century or so into the future, where he finds a dreary, post-catastrophe world where his only companion is a nearly out of it centenarian who, when the time traveler mentions his name, sobs, “Daddy.” Corny, maybe, but it took me unawares to the point of actually bringing a tear to my eyes — something which rarely happens.
I left the Galaxy group shortly before Keith suffered the massive stroke that pretty much ended his successful writing career, but I did see him from time to time. Sadly, the wreck of his brain made him the legendary even-tempered man: mad all the time. It was a terrible fate for one as talented as he and, though he lived for twenty-some years after the stroke, he never regained the art of writing a Laumer story, and almost never managed to carry on a conversation without breaking into rage.