Posts tagged ‘Poul Anderson’

Stanislaw Lem

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.

How I Came to Edit Frederik Pohl
Guest post by James Frenkel

James Frenkel (Photo by Joshua Frenkel)

James Frenkel (Photo by Joshua Frenkel)

For years I wanted to edit the works of Frederik Pohl. I loved his fiction, and not just the novels, but a lot of his stories as well. I also thought he was a terrific editor, because I read Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines in the 1960s, and when Fred was the editor they published a lot of great science fiction. So when I starting to work in book publishing and then began to edit science fiction for Dell Books, I thought it would be extremely cool to get Fred to write for Dell.

But I didn’t have a chance. The first time I ever really talked with him, at, I think, the Secondary Universe Conference at Queensborough Community College in New York City in 1969, he was polite, but I was not even close to being an editor yet. I was still in college, and meeting a bunch of big-name science fiction people all at once, and overwhelmed by the experience. It seemed to me that everywhere I looked was someone whose books or stories I had read: Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, Lester Del Rey, Gordon R. Dickson, Frederik Pohl … and lots of others, including Ivor Rogers, who wasn’t an SF writer, but did write the occasional article for Time Magazine. and was a fascinating participant.

So years later, when I was now editing SF for Dell, I knew who Fred was, and I knew that he was hot — Gateway had just been published, and if he hadn’t been famous enough before, for all of his previous accomplishments, Gateway made him nothing short of the hottest SF writer on the planet. He was published by Del Rey Books, which was arguably the best sf and fantasy publisher in the world at that moment. It took enormous courage for me to even introduce myself to him, but I managed to do it — I think it was during Lunacon, New York’s annual SF convention. And then I asked him if he’d like to have lunch sometime and maybe talk about publishing a book with Dell.

I have the feeling that he humored me because he knew that an editor for a major publisher could afford to take him out for a very nice lunch at a fine New York restaurant. I don’t know for sure, but he did agree to lunch with me, and we did so, at a nice place on the East Side in Kips Bay … I remember it was Italian food, and I was really nervous. And when I asked him what he was working on — a classic opening line for an editor to dangle the bait of publication to an author — he readily told me that he had just finished the sequel to Gateway … and Del Rey was going to publish it, of course.

And before I could ask much more about future books, he let me know that he was very happy wit Del Rey. They were paying him well, advertising and promoting his books well, and he had more books under contract to them.

Basically he was telling me that it would be a cold day in Hell before I had any chance at all of getting to buy the right to publish one of his books. So why, I thought, was I buying him lunch?

Continue reading ‘Bearding the Wild Pohl’ »

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

I met Frank Herbert and his wife Beverly at the home of Poul and Karen Anderson in the early 1960s, where we had all been invited for dinner. It was a great evening. There weren’t many people more fun to share a meal with than those four, especially when Karen was creating one of her original recipes (this time with Japanese black beans and I have no idea what else).

We became friendly quickly. I should mention that the Andersons’ home was in those unexpectedly precipitous hills across the Bay from San Francisco, because when it became going-home time the Herberts and I were driven back to the city by another diner, a local resident who knew every hill and curve and preferred to take them all at high speed while turned halfway around in the driver’s seat in order to have a friendly conversation with us. When we got out, the Herberts and I agreed that we had just been through a life-changing experience, and we would be lifelong buddies from then on.

Still, we managed to get together only rarely because of problems of geography, except for the occasional fortuitous occasion — for example, the day in the early ’80s, when I was in Seattle on a book tour. As I was crossing a street on my way to a TV interview, a car pulled up in front of me and a woman stuck her head out the window. “Hello, sailor,” she called. “Looking for a good time?” It was Bev, with Frank grinning over her shoulder from the steering-wheel side.

It wasn’t the best of opportunities for a lengthy chat, but I was glad to see them both looking well; Bev had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and, I knew, was facing surgery. Before the other drivers began honking, the Herberts mentioned that they were building a house in Hana on Maui, and I promised that the next time we were in Hawai’i we’d look them up.

Meanwhile Frank, working as a newspaperman, had started to research an article about the sand dunes of Oregon, and that changed his life. The dunes fascinated him. He never finished the article, but he began writing science-fiction stories for John Campbell’s Astounding, starting with a three-part serial about a dune planet and its inhabitants.

Herbert himself thought it might make a pretty good hardcover book but was disappointed by the responses when he tried offering it to publishers. No book publisher was interested in acquiring the hardcover rights to this rapidly expanding mass of manuscript, however, until an editor at the quite small publishing house of Chilton Books managed to stitch the several existing stories into a single huge novel. He called it Dune, and when he published the result, it became a runaway bestseller, said to be the most profitable sf book ever written.

Frank had written with real people and places in mind, though he gave them invented names for his stories, just as Cordwainer Smith had for his own stories of the imperfectly concealed Middle East. Arrakis was Frank Herbert code for Iraq, The Baron was Dick Cheney, Selusa Secundis was Afghanistan and so on. (I’m sorry to say that I don’t know all the identities for either author.)

To be continued. . . .

Related post:
Frank Herbert, the Dune Man, Part 2


Jack Vance, 1979.

Jack Vance, 1979.

One weekend last summer — to be exact, on the morning of 19 July, 2009 — a lot of New Yorkers got a surprise when they opened their Sunday Times Magazine. What they found was particularly pleasing to those among them who chanced to be science-fiction fans, for there in that prestigious journal was a critical — and very favorable — essay on a writer that it called “one of America’s most distinctive and underrated voices.” And the owner of that voice, it said, was none other than our own Jack Vance.

It was not only Carlo Rotella, the critic who wrote the Times piece, who thought so. He was able to quote Michael Chabon (“Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or the Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation.”) and Dan Simmons, who said that discovering Vance “was a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James…. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly tuned language. If he’d been born south of the border he’d be up for a Nobel prize.”

As one of those Vance-loving sf fans myself, I read the Times piece with astonishment and pleasure, for science fiction has long had a bad press — slightly relieved in recent years by the impressive earnings of writers like Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov — from most of the country’s respectable journals. But what this piece said was not only interesting, it was precisely true. Jack Vance not only imagines wonderful things to tell us about, he embodies his visions in a special individual kind of language that is all Vance’s own.

I came late to Vance. Most of his early stories appeared in magazines and other places that I didn’t normally read. Friends with my best interests at heart did try to persuade me to give this Vance person a try, but I never quite got around to following their sage advice. Then Horace L. Gold began to find the editing of Galaxy too much for him to handle. I helped him as needed for a while; then he retired and the publisher asked me to take over.

I not only had read little of Vance, I had never — unusually among the sf writers of the ’50s and ’60s — happened to meet him. We had many friends in common among the writers who lived, like Vance, in the Pacific Northwest, and they didn’t fail to keep me informed of his doings. With Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, he had for a time owned a houseboat, and when one day it sank at its moorings, Vance was the one who worked out a way to refloat it.

With his late wife, Norma, whom he had met and married when they both were still college undergraduates, Vance was a world traveler, visiting unlikely spots all over the map, and writing whole books in improbable places. He had begun writing while in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific in World War II, and kept it up in whatever part of the world he happened to be visiting at that specific moment. Whatever the locale, Jack wrote his stories in longhand, whereafter Norma typed them up to send out..

And then one day, after Horace had retired and I had inherited the batch of stories he had bought, I was going through them and I discovered one or two I had never seen. One was by Vance, and it was called “The Moon Moth.” It was the story of an Earthman posted as a diplomatic official on a planet whose people appear in public only when wearing ornate masks and communicate not by talking but by singing.

It caught my attention. Vance was what I thought of as an ornamental writer — mannered prose, complex sentences, formal dialogue. That was not necessarily a good thing. I’m as fond of Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever they’re calling Marcel Proust’s masterwork now) as the next man, but I don’t normally find that kind of linguistic mastery in the slush pile of a science-fiction magazine. Done beautifully, that sort of thing is beautiful. Done poorly, I send it back to the writer.

This was definitely in the beautiful territory.

One of Vance’s scholars has reported that Vance was impressed by the equally ornate style of James Branch Cabell. Both Vance’s and Cabell’s styles are similarly inflated, but I don’t think they are mannered in quite the same way. No matter. “The Moon Moth” was a fine story. I scheduled it for an early issue and sought more. It took a while, but ultimately my efforts did bear fruit as I received a new Vance manuscript called The Dragon Masters.

I read it at once and instantly loved it. It concerned a planet inhabited by humans, but from time to time visited by spaceships from another planet, this one inhabited by intelligent lizard-like aliens, called dragons, who kidnap humans for the purpose of breeding them into fighting troops. When they have achieved their purpose they have an army of mutated humans in several different types, including giant warriors. The dragons use these to capture more humans for their breeding experiments. However the humans of the raided planet have managed to capture one dragon spaceship with its crew, well before this story starts, and are breeding dragon warriors in the same way that the dragons breed (formerly) human ones.

It struck me as the perfect Jack Vance story, with a handsomely imagined setting, a carefully invented plot line, embellished by his unique use of language. I got busy.

I called Jack Gaughan, the most inventive of our stable of artists, and asked him to come in to discuss a particularly challenging set of illustrations. The wonderful thing about Gaughan was that he understood what I was asking for a good deal faster then most illustrators, and he did not disappoint. He came through with a bunch of his best work, including a cover and interior black and whites that involved thumbnail sketches of each of the purpose-bred races each side had created out of the captured samplings of the other.

I loved it.

I wasn’t the only one who did, either. When at last that issue was on the stands the reader mail was good, and when it came time for award voting The Dragon Masters had — of course — won a Hugo (though, curiously, it was described as a short story, I have never known why) and Gaughan had won an art Hugo of his own, specifically for The Dragon Masters work (and, I believe, the only time the award was given for a specified set of illustrations rather than for general high quality.)

Sometimes being an editor is fun.

For me the fun quotient was diminishing around that time. I have long believed as an article of faith that no one should hold the same editorial job for more than a decade or so, because (I believe) the best work is done when it is all fresh and new and after a while the editor is just going through the motions. A few years after The Dragon Masters, I proved that point by making a serious mistake with another Jack Vance story, The Last Castle. Jack had divided the story into a number of chapters and added a clutch of scholarly, but irrelevant, comments at the beginning of each chapter. Editors are put upon this Earth for the purpose of correcting an author’s errors in such matters, and I set myself to improving Jack’s chapter headers by cutting them fifty per cent or so.

The mistake wasn’t in making that decision — those chunks of prose were excessive and seriously distracting — it was in doing the cutting myself without first asking Jack to fix it. When he saw the published version he was unhappy. When I ran into him at a meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in Lake Tahoe a little later his first words were, “Fred, you shouldn’t have done it,” And he never sent me another story.

Actually he didn’t have many opportunities to do that. Not long afterward, I took a week off to go to a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, and when I came back to the office I found that Bob Guinn had taken advantage of my absence to sell the magazines to another publisher.

Indeed, that was his right; he owned them. But I think he suspected that if I were around when he was making that deal I might have talked him out of it, and I certainly would have tried. It wasn’t a good idea. But by then it was a fait accompli.

I took it as a reminder of my convictions about the relevance of longevity to performance in an editorial job, and actually as an opportunity to try something else for a while. (The other publisher had no idea how to run the magazines, as I had expected. They hung on for a couple of years of dwindling quality and then were folded.)

For a time, I lost touch with Jack Vance, as I did with many of the Galaxy contributors after that. Then I heard that things were not going as well as he deserved for him. First came the word that he was losing his vision, and then that Norma had died. Before the blindness became total, he was still managing to get some writing done by scribbling a word or two, in giant letters, on each sheet of paper and then writing the next word or two on another sheet, und so weiter.

Since then we do keep in some sort of touch by the occasional phone call, and I was happy to learn that he now has a sensitive high-tech computer system to write with. He’s too good a writer, and too good a man, to be condemned to silence.