Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

The continued life and loves of Isaac Asimov

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

There was one woman whom Isaac met in that period when his marriage to Gertrude was crumbling but had not yet got to the stage of a divorce who became both large and permanent in Isaac’s life. She was a New York psychiatrist named Janet Jeppson, who now and then wrote science fiction.

Janet and Isaac had once or twice bumped into each other at science-fiction events in the city, but nothing much came of it until they were both present at an annual banquet of the Mystery Writers of America. They found themselves talking mostly to each other, and thereafter Isaac regarded her as a good friend — at least until he came to regard her as the woman he would wholeheartedly love until the end of his life.

I didn’t at the time know Janet, and I was pretty curious about this woman who had so smitten the normally somewhat reticent Isaac Asimov. Isaac was, also uncharacteristically, always willing to talk about her; in fact you could say that Janet was his favorite topic of conversation in the years around 1970. When, a little overloaded with Janetiana, I finally asked him why she was incontestably the most desirable woman in the world for him, he thought for a moment and then said, “Because Janet has never once failed to make me feel welcome.”

One story Isaac told me says something about the degree of Isaac’s growing devotion to her — and about some of the problems that come with a degree of public recognition. Isaac had just finished delivering a lecture to a group in Boston when he got a phone message to say that Janet had collapsed with some sort of a brain problem in New York and was now in the emergency room of a hospital. There were few details. Shocked and frightened, Isaac said a quick goodbye to his hosts, ran out of the building, jumped into his car and was off.

It is a good couple of hundred miles from Boston to New York, with good highways but highways that are exceptionally well policed. It is astonishing that Isaac wasn’t pulled over along the way because the length of time he took to make the trip was incompatible with speed limits, but he got to the hospital in one piece and managed to locate Janet’s doctor. Who said, “Yes, I’m Dr. Jeppson’s attending and I’ll take you to her, but first, Dr. Asimov, may I tell you how much I’ve always enjoyed your Foundation stories?”

Isaac being a nonviolent person, he didn’t cold-cock the man. And he did get to see Janet, and she recovered from what had caused her collapse.

Unfortunately that was not the total of their medical problems in that period. In 1972, Isaac discovered that there was something going on in his thyroid gland that might well be malignant, requiring dietary changes and medications to take, while Janet found a lump in her breast that was definitely so, requiring surgery.

That made a problem in Isaac’s mind, because he had always admitted that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or of the visible results of surgery. (That was one of the things that had made his long-ago rejection by the medical schools quite bearable.) He was sure that the removal of one of her breasts would make Janet worry that her body would become repulsive to him.

He was also sure that that could not happen, that no imaginable change in Janet’s physiology could make him love her less. But the person he had to convince was Janet herself.

So he practiced not looking away, controlled the expression on his face and made a habit of cracking jokes about “single swingers.” It worked. Before long he had Janet herself able to laugh about the subject, as she has been ever since.

Then, as 1972 was coming to an end, something nice happened. The Holland-American cruise line put on a special event, a cruise to some lovely Caribbean islands which included a special stopover off the coast of Cape Canaveral to view the launch of the Apollo 17 Moon rocket. It was a night launch, the first one ever attempted, and the last launch scheduled to take human beings to the surface of the Moon. (And none have been added since.)

The ship’s manifest included fellow sf writers Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova and myself (each including a nearest and dearest, and in Ted’s case a small son who explored every part of the ship, giving all the rest of us employment in keeping him from falling overboard), along with various celebrities like Marvin Minsky, Hugh Downs, Katherine Anne Porter, Norman Mailer and Carl Sagan, among many others. Nearly all were either old friends or people one would be happy to have become so.

Isaac, of course, usually retired to his cabin between meals, and anyone who passed could hear the steady tappety-tap of his portable. This, I explained to those who didn’t know him, was because of an incurable addiction Isaac suffered: he had never seen a sheet of paper he didn’t want to write on. (Well, to be fair, I rather often did the same thing myself.)

The book Isaac was writing at the time was one of his works on humor, and before adding a joke to the collection in the manuscript it was Isaac’s practice to tell it to his companions at meals to get a reaction That added to the already impressive amount of laughing and jesting that went on at that table over the Holland-America’s quite good food, but my then wife Carol and I were excluded. We were both still dedicated cigarette smokers, and Isaac and Ben Bova, who had claimed that table early on, were even more dedicatedly not. (Though Barbara Bova still did enjoy an occasional cigar.)

That didn’t really matter, anyway. With so few passengers aboard we were all clustered in one corner of the ship’s vast dining hall. Also, with so few of us to be fed there was only one seating for meals, too, which meant we could linger over them as long as we liked, and banter between tables was the norm.

Taken all in all it was definitely a joyous cruise, although perhaps not so much so for the Holland-America line. Because of some incomprehensible mixup hardly any tickets had been sold to paying customers, so that we freebies pretty nearly had the ship to ourselves. But Janet greatly enjoyed it … and therefore so did Isaac.

And then, in the fullness of time, in 1973, the divorce from Gertrude was granted, and then it was less than a week before Janet and Isaac were married.

(Coming up soon, I think, the final, and mostly sad, part of my memories of Isaac.)

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I spend a lot of time reading what you guys have to say about items in the blog, and I have to say I’m impressed with what a smart and rewarding bunch you all are. (Of course I would probably say something of that sort whether it was true or not, but in this case it happens to be true.) So when one of you says that there is something you would like me to write about, and I can see how to do it, I try to comply. One of you, for instance, has recently asked me to try to describe what thought processes led me to the writing of my novel Gateway. That’s a welcome question not only because I’m particularly fond of that book but also because I can answer it.

The process that led to Gateway began with a remark by some scientist — I’ve forgotten which one — in an attempt to explain why, if there are other technically advanced civilizations in the universe, as many of us would like to believe, none of them have dropped in to visit us. That could simply be, he said, because they got an earlier start than we did. That is, life appeared on their planet thousands, or even millions, of years before it did on Earth, and therefore their dominant race of beings reached their spaceflight era long before we did. (After which, who knows? Perhaps they killed themselves off, of doing which there is all too good a chance that we might yet. Or they simply lost interest. Or — as I say — who knows?)

In that case, they might have visited Earth dozens of times, but finding no one here with interests closer to their own than the australopithecines — or, for that matter, than the trilobites or even the slime molds — they got discouraged and went away. And the only way we would have of learning that they had existed would be if they had left something of theirs behind for our archeologists to find.

That seemed like a territory suitable for the construction of a good science-fiction story to me, so I began trying to do it.

A lot of writers have minds more orderly than my own. These tidier souls tend to write out a synopsis of what the book is going to be, all the way to the conclusion, before they write a single line of the actual text. This approach to the how-to of writing is simply alien to my nature. Instead, when I get a sort of general idea I simply start to write, making it up as I go along. Writing, then, is pretty much a process of discovery for me. As I write I see more and more of the implications of that original idea, and I shape my story line accordingly.

Usually, it’s a fairly efficient process. I seldom have to go back and x out passages because they lead nowhere. But in the case of what ultimately became Gateway I made several false starts. I finally wrote a novella called “The Merchants of Venus.” That one made the assumptions that aliens, long ago, had indeed visited our solar system; but that they had paid little attention to Earth, for reasons we have no way of knowing, but perhaps because they altruistically didn’t want to interfere with the development of the primitive human terrestrials; and that they had accordingly then focused most of their attention on the planet Venus. And, since Venus’s surface conditions are lethally hot and nasty, they had dug huge tunnels, kept at a livable temperatures and filled with breathable air, in which they had established colonies of their scientists to study the planet — much as we humans have done in Antarctica.

Then, much later, the aliens have gone away and the human race has developed to the point of having space travel that is efficient enough to allow (rich) tourists to visit the planet, where they buy souvenirs excavated from the old alien tunnels. The tunnels were cleaned out by the aliens when they left, but they weren’t careful enough to get every last item. (Some of the “trash” they left behind is technologically advanced and very valuable to its discoverers.)

I was reasonably satisfied with the novella. But I couldn’t get those aliens out of my mind.

So a year or so later I went back to the drawing board and began writing the story of Robinette Broadhead, who visits the asteroid where the aliens have parked their surplus spaceships, and uses them to explore far-off star systems.

However, I had been thinking for some time that it would be nice for a novel’s readers if the author could give them some way of seeing everything that’s interesting in the background of the story. Not just what the author believes is relevant. And so I began writing the “sidebars” that festoon the book.

Meanwhile I was doing a lot of traveling around that time, writing on the book in airplanes and hotel rooms. (Some of the sidebars have a slight Canadian flavor. That’s because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had invited me to come up to Toronto to do commentary on the upcoming rendezvous in orbit of a U.S. Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, and I lived there for a week or so.)

Then, when it was basically all written, I assembled all the parts and read it over.

I was reasonably content with most of it, but the short last chapter didn’t move me. So I rewrote it. Then I rewrote it again.

Then I rewrote it again and kept on doing it until I could go no farther — each time giving better and better lines to my favorite character, the computer psychoanalyst, Sigfrid von Shrink.

And that’s the way, under the title Gateway , it got published.


Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985 (Photo by William Shunn).

    Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985
    (Photo by William Shunn).

It was a nice spring day in 1950-something and I was up in my third-floor office in the house in Red Bank, New Jersey, trying to telephone my other office in New York.

I wasn’t having much luck. Every time I picked up the phone my then wife, Carol, was already on it. Finally, I gave up, turned off the typewriter and went downstairs to see if the mail had come yet. It had. I was opening it over a cup of coffee when Carol showed up, off the phone at last. “Long call,” I said. “Who were you talking to?”

“Eddie Duna,” she said. “Oh, and I invited her out for the weekend, all right?”

“Oh,” I said. “Listen, I forgot to tell you. I already invited A J. I don’t think they’ve met.”

She gave me a look, but what she said was, “Fine. We’ve got room.” We did, too — a house that was ancient, decrepit, requiring constant infusions of money to keep it standing, but with twelve or so rooms. (I work at home and I don’t like to be crowded. My current home is about the same size, though less decrepit and needing somewhat fewer infusions.)

“Maybe they’ll like each other,” she added. “Maybe they’ll get married. A J could do a lot worse. Edna’s smart and great looking, and she’s got a good job.”

“Well, so could she,” I said, sticking up for my client. “A J is turning into a hell of a writer. What’s for lunch?”

And, you know, they did like each other and, a few months later, they did get married.

Well, that’s not so strange, is it? Happens all the time. A couple introduces friends to each other and sometimes the friends get married.

Well, sure, but what’s unusual about this particular event, at least among my crowd, is that these two stayed married, through four sons and more than fifty years, until 2008, when a long illness finally carried A J off. Hey, I’m some matchmaker! When I make a match it stays made.

Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born in 1931 in Lithuania, but he didn’t stay there long. His father was an official in Lithuania’s diplomatic corps and while A J was still small the family was posted to Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia. A J, who had just about got a good handle on the Lithuanian language, began to learn German. His adult memories of East Prussia — which, like the rest of Germany, had been Nazified with the accession of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier — were troublesome.

He particularly recalled Hitler himself parading right past the Budrys apartment when he was five, he told Mark Williams in an interview shortly before he died. “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up.” The crowds made “indescribable” sounds. Men lost control of their bowels and had to race for the bushes or writhed and rolled on the ground.

Not long after that, the Budrys family was redeployed to New York. That was a much better posting, especially for a young boy who was beginning to read American children’s stories, but then everything changed.

The Soviet Union occupied all three of the Baltic countries; the Lithuanian diplomatic service ceased to exist, and so did the salary that had kept them afloat in this new country. A J’s father had to find a new way to support his little family. For a while it was farming, but then the Nazis evicted the Soviets and occupied Lithuania, and the other countries themselves, and the American government tardily decided to underwrite people like the Budryses. It looked as though they would be here for a while, so A J began the study of his third language. At which, most critics would agree, he became quite good.

In fact, while attending college, A J began writing stories of his own in English, and even managed to sell a few. Then one day he turned up at my Fifth Avenue literary-agency office to ask if I would take on his representation.

I did. Unfortunately for A J, though — and not all that nicely for me — he came along at a time when I was getting seriously over-extended and in increasingly deep money trouble. In what may have been A J’s last public talk, at the Heinlein Centennial in 2007, the hundredth anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth, A J reminisced about those days. “Fred made some great sales for me,” he said. “He even sold John Campbell a story that Campbell had already rejected when I sent it to him myself. But then when Fred sent me his check for the story, it bounced.”

(I regret to say that that’s a true story, though not one I enjoy. Maybe one day I’ll write about my literary-agent days for this blog, but not right now. They were only fifty or sixty years ago and still too painful.)

I couldn’t go on like that. I took the hard decision and packed the agency in, turned all the writers loose and began working to earn the money to pay back the $30,000 I had lost. Mostly I was doing it by writing but, when Horace Gold’s health made him unable to go on editing Galaxy and If, and Bob Guinn offered me the job, I took it. And, of course, A J was one of my principal contributors.

By then A J and Edna were not only married but in the next year or so expecting their first child. They had moved out of the city and into a small apartment in Red Bank, less than half a mile from my own house. That was convenient for A J. When he finished a story for me he could whip the last page out of the typewriter, walk out his door and in ten or fifteen minutes walk it over to my house for, when necessary, an immediate read followed by my trip to the Galaxy office in New York the next morning to bring back Bob Guinn’s check for the story.

“When necessary,” as it happened, was basically always, because when they moved out of New York, they had moved away from Edna’s job. The Budryses were now living on A J’s writing earnings.

Writing money is not like salary money. Salary money comes in a check every Friday, and you can budget according to what you’ll be able to pay. Writing money comes in indigestible lumps — perhaps not much in January, even less in February, a couple hundred, maybe, in March, and then in April a whopping big check, which makes your average income per month look pretty good. But, of course, the grocer, the landlord and everybody else are on their own timetable which has nothing to do with your monthly averages, and so there are problems.

Still, A J was both prolific and good. After a while, the Budryses had risen to the status of renting a house (in Oceanport, closer to the shore) and buying a car. A J, a true son of the automobile age, was now in his element. He developed a new writing behavior that was all his own. Each night, after dinner, he would kiss Edna and the babies (by then there were two of them) good night and jump into his car, carrying a recorder and a good supply of tape.

Then he would drive around for most of the night, more or less at random, steering with one hand and holding the tape recorder with the other to dictate stories into. When he had filled enough tape to satisfy himself he would drive home, park the car, hand the tape over to Edna to be typed out and hit the sack for a good day’s sleep.

Sometimes he hadn’t quite finished the stories when he turned them in, especially when it came to putting a title on them, so we would wrangle over that before I would concede the story was accepted. Generally, that didn’t take long but there was one story — allusive, subjective, poetic — that gave us particular trouble. After we both had come up empty I asked, “All right, A J, just tell me what the story’s about.”

He said, unhappily, “I can’t. I just know it’s what I wanted to write.”

I was leafing through the manuscript. “All right,” I said at last, “Here in the first couple of pages there are some phrases that I like, One is ‘wall of crystal’ and the other is ‘eye of night.’ How about calling it ‘Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night’?”

He gave me a pop-eyed look. “What does it mean?”

I said, “I don’t know, but I promise you that if we do, no one will ever ask you that question.” And no one ever did.

I have been asked which of A J’s stories were written in this hard-driving way, and I don’t know the answer. He had begun writing novels by then and my guess is that that was the system for two of them, probably Who? and Rogue Moon, but it’s only a guess. I don’t think it was many, perhaps not any, of the pieces I published, with the possible exception of the one of his novels that I ran as a three-part serial, The Iron Thorn.

Which nearly resulted in a homicide.

You know what the first law of editing is? It is this: “Never, ever, announce a story by a particular writer until the completed manuscript is safely in your hands.”

I didn’t just violate that law. I did worse. I wanted to start a new serial in the next issue of If, which was just about to go to the printer, and I didn’t have one. What I did have was Part One of A J’s The Iron Thorn. That was just the kind of story I wanted for that spot, but every warning bell in my mind was clanging away. . . .

I ignored them. I crossed my fingers, sent Part One off to the printers and hoped for the best.

I don’t want to tell you how many deadlines we came a hairsbreadth from missing over the next two issues, but A J, though often coming through at the last moment, and I mean by that the very, very last moment, did unfailingly come through, so I didn’t have to kill him.

But I never did that again.

To be continued. . . .

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Wonder Stories, April 1933

I don’t know what kind of a writer I would have been if I hadn’t met Dirk Wylie and, through him and with him, the whole world of science-fiction fandom. Much the same, I imagine. I almost certainly would have been some kind of a writer — I’m hardly fit for anything else. And I had been trying to write sf at least a year before I met Dirk, in idle moments in classes in the eighth grade. But it would have taken a lot longer.

I owe a lot to fandom. From Don Wollheim, John Michel, Doc Lowndes — and later from Cyril Kornbluth, Dick Wilson, Isaac Asimov and others — I learned something about what they were learning about writing; we all showed each other our stories, when we weren’t actually collaborating on them. In the fan mags, I acquired the skills necessary to prepare something for public viewing — and the courage to permit it.

What I am not as sure of is whether all the things we learned then were worth learning.

Science fiction was purely a pulp category in those days. Sometimes the emphasis was on gadgetry, sometimes on blood-and-thunder adventure; when it was best, the high spots were vistas of new worlds and new kinds of life. In no case was it on belles-lettres, nor was it a place to look for fresh insights into the human condition. What we learned from each other and from the world around us was the hardware of writing. Narrative hooks. Time-pressure to make a story move. Character tags — not characterization, but oddities, quirks, bits of business to make a person in a story not alive but identifiable. So I learned how to invent ray-guns and how to make a story march, but it was not for a long, long time that I began to try to learn how to use a story to say something that needed saying.

In fact, when I look back at the science-fiction magazines of the twenties and the early thirties, the ones that hooked me on sf, I sometimes wonder just what it was we all found in them to shape our lives around.

I think there were two things. One is that science fiction was a way out of a bad place; the other, that it was a window on a better one.

The world really was in bad trouble. Money trouble. The Great Depression was not just a few million people out of work or a thousand banks gone shaky. It was fear. And it was worldwide. Somehow or other the economic life of the human race had got itself off the tracks. No one was quite sure it would get straight again. No one could be sure that his own life was not going to be disastrously changed, and science fiction offered an escape from all that.

The other thing about the world was that technology had just begun to make itself a part of everyone’s life. Every day there were new miracles. Immense new buildings. Giant airships. Huge ocean liners. Man flew across the Atlantic and circled the South Pole. Cars went faster, tunnels went deeper, the Empire State Building stretched a fifth of a mile into the sky, radio brought you the voice of a singer a continent away.

It was clear that behind all this growth and acceleration something was happening, and that it would not stop happening with huge Zeppelins and giant buildings but would go on and on. What science fiction was about was the going on. The next step, and the step after that. Not just radio, but television. Not just the conquest of the air, but the conquest of space.

Of course, not even science fiction was telling us much about the price tag on progress. It told us about the future of the automobile; it didn’t tell us that sulphur-dioxide pollution would crumble the stone in the buildings that lined the streets. It told us about high-speed aircraft, but not about sonic boom; about atomic energy, but not about fallout; about organ transplants and life prolongation, but not about the dreary agony of overpopulation.

Nobody else was telling us about these things, either. A decade or two later science fiction picked up on the gloom behind the glamour very quickly, and maybe too completely. But in those early days we were as innocent as physicists, popes and presidents. We saw only the promise, not the threat.

And truthfully we weren’t looking for threats. We were looking for beauty and challenge. When we couldn’t find them on Earth, we looked outside for prettier, more satisfying places. Mars. Venus. The made-up planets of invented stars somewhere off in the middle of the galaxy, or in galaxies farther away still.

I think we all believed as an article of faith that there were other intelligent races in the universe than our own, plenty of them. (I still believe it! What puzzles me is why we haven’t seen any of them as visitors. I wish I could swallow the flying-saucer stories — I can’t; the evidence just isn’t good. But the absence of hard facts hasn’t shaken my faith that Osnomians and Fenachrone are out there somewhere.) If polled, I am sure we would have agreed that wherever there’s a planet, there’s life — or used to be, or will be.

Now, alas, we know that the odds are not as good as we had hoped, especially for our own solar system. The local real estate is pretty low quality. Mercury is too hot and has too little air; Venus is too hot and has too much, and poisonous at that. Mars is still a possibility, but not by any means a good one — and what else is there? But in the mid-thirties we didn’t know as much as we do now. The big telescopes hadn’t yet been completed, and of course no spaceship had yet brought a TV camera to Mars or the Moon.

But we believed.

Stay tuned. . . .

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Gulf of Mexico oil slick five days after the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. (NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team photo.)

Gulf of Mexico oil slick five days after the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. (NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team photo.)


Aloft in Cosmic Magnitude

Aloft in cosmic magnitude
There is a planet made of wood
Its people neither spin nor toil,
For they are living blobs of oil
Along mahogany streets
They ooze
And never travel save in twos
For they get lost without their maps
Since they are really naught but saps.

—Donald Allen Wollheim, ca. 1935



Robert A. Heinlein with his parents at Annapolis in 1927. (Photo from The Heinlein Centennial Souvenir Book.)

Robert A. Heinlein with his parents at Annapolis in 1927. (Photo from The Heinlein Centennial Souvenir Book.)

While I was writing something about my memories of Robert A. Heinlein, it occurred to me that I might also have something worth mentioning to say about his interior and private life. That is, about the aspects of one of my most admired writers that I would never have dared to write about in his lifetime — not because he would have come after me with a bullwhip or a summons, but because it would have caused him serious pain and immediately, and irrevocably, would then have lost me his friendship.

But that was then. Now is now. He is past the period when anything any of us might do could cause him pain. What’s more, I am convinced that he was too important a writer, and too complex a person, to leave major portions of his life and his works undiscussed … so here goes.

The first thing to know about Robert A. Heinlein is that he was a peacetime naval officer and an Annapolis graduate and therefore exposed to the service academies’ old-fashioned and sometimes amusing notions of honor. In Heinlein’s case, they took. Throughout his life, honor was of major importance.

I can perhaps give one illustrative example. Both John Campbell and his then wife Dona considered Heinlein a dear friend and, at a point when the Campbell marriage was getting seriously frayed, wrote long letters to Heinlein about their problems.

Then, years later, something triggered Heinlein’s honor glands. He decided that it was wrong for him to possess so many of other people’s secrets so he bundled up both batches of letters and mailed them back —

To John. All of them. Both sets.

I don’t think Dona ever forgave him for that.

Another example. In the early 1970s, Heinlein and I and a raft of other writers and celebrities (Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Carl Sagan and several dozen others) were comped by the Holland-America Line to cruise to Florida to watch the launch of the Apollo 17 lunar spacecraft from the waters just off the Cape. (A grand experience, which remind me to tell you more about another time.)

At some point on the trip, Robert had a disagreement with the ship’s personnel, I am not sure exactly what about, but the effect of it was that Robert thought they were saying he had failed to do something they expected in return for his free tickets. In a service-academy mind that sort of failure to carry out an agreement for services can translate as theft, so Robert whipped out his checkbook to reimburse the line for the cost of his and Ginny’s tickets. (I think the line refused to accept it; anyway, the whole thing was settled amicably and the Heinleins enjoyed the rest of the cruise. But while it might be considered a question of honor, Robert could not let it stand.)

To be continued. . . .

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