Posts tagged ‘Alfred Bester’

Galaxy, June 1952, with Gravy Planet by Pohl & Kornbluth

 

Cyril Kornbluth and I had collaborated on a few not very good (but sold and published anyway) stories before the war changed everything. He wasn’t doing a lot of writing now, because he had determined to go straight with his life, by which he meant get a college education. Accordingly, he had moved to Chicago with his new wife, Mary, and signed up at the University of Illinois with the financial help of the GI Bill of Rights. He had time to write very little, but what he had written (and I instantly sold for him through the Dirk Wylie agency) was getting better and better.

I thought he could be tempted. As he had just turned up at our house for a visit, it was easy to put that to the test, so I showed him the partial manuscript, and he was hooked. When Cyril went home, he took the fragment with him. He did some tidying up on that first third of the book, then wrote a draft of the next third on his own and came back to show it to me.

I was happy with his draft. We then wrote the final section turn and about, a four-page segment by Cyril followed by four pages by me und so weiter. Then I went over the manuscript myself for one last time. Then I delivered it to Horace and he started it on schedule, after changing the title to Gravy Planet, right after Alfie Bester’s serial ended.

Gravy Planet attracted a lot of interest in the sf community. For a while, it was held responsible for inspiring a whole new species of science fiction called the “when the garbage men take over the world” stories. And when it was finished in the magazine, I made a neat package of the tearsheets in order to sell a hard-cover edition to one book publisher or another. As an agent, I had been selling a ton of sf novels to the newborn and voracious book market for sf. I didn’t anticipate having any trouble getting a book contract.

I could not have been more wrong.

 
To be continued. . . .

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Horace L. Gold

Horace L. Gold

Over the next few years I gave most of my thinking time to other matters. I finally could not make myself stay on at a 9-to-5 job in advertising, so in spite of pleas to stay and the offers of still more money, I left my good friends in advertising and took over the management of my dying friend Dirk Wylie’s literary agency. I did occasionally have a spasm of writing the novel, putting together a few pages of one false start or another, and then ash-canning them when I read them over.

But then I had an idea — slow in coming but full of promise. What I had become reasonably good at, and seemed to be getting slowly better, was science fiction. So why not write a science-fiction novel about advertising?

I experimentally wrote a few pages, on something to which I gave the title Fall Campaign. Then, as time permitted I wrote a few more, and then a few more than that, and after quite a few such episodes I had about a 20,000-word chunk of what was a recognizable science-fiction novel about advertising.

Although I had {through the Wylie agency agency), been selling a reasonable number of short stories, all under pseudonyms, novels were terra incognita to me. I felt the need of an outside opinion. So I took my 20,000 words over to show to Horace Gold, the brilliant, if sometimes maddening, editor of the new magazine Galaxy. My agency did a lot of business with his magazine and we had become friends. He read it over and said, “Fine. I’m running an Alfie Bester serial now. As soon as that finishes I’ll start this one.”

That caught me unawares. I said, “Horace, did you happen to notice that it isn’t finished?”

He said, “Sure. So what do you do about that? You go home and finish it.”

The trouble with that very appealing idea was that running the literary agency did not leave me enough time to do what Horace wanted, at least single-handed. But I quickly saw that I had a possible solution to the problem right up in the third floor guest room of my recently acquired house in Red Bank, New Jersey. The name of the solution was Cyril Kornbluth.

 
To be continued. . . .

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  • The Story of The Space Merchants, Part 1
Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison

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.

 
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The conclusion of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Audience: What’s it like to start writing the next book after you have written, say, The Demolished Man?

Bester: I’ve just finished a book about a month ago and I’m absolutely pooped — there’s nothing left. It happens with me when I’ve finished something big like a novel. Not a script — with a script or a short story, next week you write another one. But with a book, I’m exhausted.

Now at my advanced age I know better — I leave it alone and the next thing I know, a few weeks, a couple of months maybe, an idea begins to niggle me and the next thing I know I’m beginning to dream and think about it. Who’s as surprised as me when there’s something in my head and there’s my legal pad, and a book is formed? You just have to wait for the battery to recharge. I just wait patiently and it starts all over again. There are so many ideas that one has.

I may think, “Ah yes, there’s that play that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time and I’m going to start on that play,” and the next thing I know it’s going to turn into a novel. You don’t know what will happen — you’re constantly surprised.

Pohl: You’re a much more organized person than I am. I don’t work on one thing at a time. I usually have eight or 10 projects going at one time. I work on one until I’m bored, and don’t know what to do next. Then I put it away and work on another. So the point never really comes where I have to say this day I start from scratch with something new, but each day, to the extent possible with the vicissitudes of travel or something, I do some writing!

Every day. I find that sometimes it gets a little treacherous though because I want to write the same scene in three different novels. There are two novels that I’m working on now and I’ve got a great scene and I want it in both of them.

Bester: I’ve stolen scenes from myself many a time and been ashamed.

Audience: Do you consider the increasing commercialism of science fiction will have a detrimental effect on the future?

Pohl: The increasing commercialism of science fiction has worried me sometimes because it seems to me that the prices have got pretty high and it’s a sort of South Sea Bubble thing that is going to bust before long. But I don’t think it’ll affect any writer seriously. Writers that are good enough to command the sky-high prices that are going on, especially science-fiction writers, are generally also so damn stubborn that they’re going to do what they want to do anyhow. And not too many of the first-rank writers that I know are going to worry about commercialism. They will do their thing.

From time to time I’ve flirted with things like television where you can’t really do your thing unless you have a commanding position and have spent 20 years earning it, but I don’t want to do that, even though I could make much more money and reach a wider audience. It’s not my thing. And most of the writers I know will not do what they don’t want to do, no matter what sort of money is about.

Bester: I agree completely. I do an occasional science-fiction special, but I can’t write for any of the standard shows. The coast — Hollywood — is impossible.

There’s a little gag: What is a camel? A camel is a horse designed by a committee. Out on the coast, it is all committee work.

Pohl: Yes, all these people have to justify their salaries by having an opinion! If they don’t have an opinion, they’re fired.

Bester: Which they impose on you. I’m all kinds of author, but I’ve never yet written anything in which I’ve not been in complete control. And I just will not put up with committee work.

Audience: Another person who comes to mind as somebody who has tried very hard to do his own thing within the framework of media work is Harlan Ellison!

Pohl: Harlan does his own thing. Harlan chooses for reasons not known to me to flagellate himself by going back and writing episodes of The Flying Nun from time to time. Why he does this I don’t really know; he doesn’t need the money.

Bester: Harlan did a Star Trek script and it was the one good script that they had. Harlan’s a marvelous writer, there’s no doubt about it.

Pohl: The reason I don’t get involved in film and top TV, is neither that I’m allergic to money nor above that sort of thing. It’s just that I don’t want to deal with all those people. One maniac editor is all that I can handle at one time; 27 lunatic network executives would just drive me insane.

AD: But Fred, now you’ve achieved enough clout to get away with it.

Pohl: I can get away with it until they come back and say, “NBC loves your idea but they won’t allow you to do what you said you want to do.” And then I walk away.

A couple of years ago, I was coming to Los Angeles and my Hollywood agent called me up and said: “When you come, I’ve got somebody for you to meet. He’s a producer and he wants you to write a script for him.”

And I said: “What kind of script?”

“It’s a Japanese monster movie!”

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 8: Hollywood and the Name Game’ »

Part 7 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 

Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

    Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

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.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 7: Cyclothymia’ »

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

Part 6 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 

Pohl: I’ve just realized something very significant. Of all the science fiction writers in the English-speaking world who began in the late ’30s and ’40s who have survived since and done reasonably well, there are only two who were not largely and directly influenced by John Campbell. That’s you and me!

John Campbell is the fellow who took science fiction by the scruff of the neck in the late ’30s and changed it. Made it much better. And people like Isaac Asimov and van Vogt and Bob Heinlein, and almost everybody else who really became significant writers around that period owe a great debt to Campbell. They were published primarily in his magazine and got a great deal of advice and guidance from him. And I know I didn’t.

John Campbell was a good friend of mine but he had this one tacky personality trait — he never bought any stories from me! I kept trying but he never would buy them. How about you, Alfie?

Bester: Oh, I had an experience with Campbell! As Fred has said, he really took science fiction by the scruff of the neck and shaped it into something really worthwhile. Up until then it had just been hack writing by guys who were translating westerns into science fiction. Campbell changed all that. He was a great man. I worshipped Campbell, of course.

I wrote a story called “Oddy and Id.” The premise of the story simply was that we are not consciously in control of our actions but this deep Id, this well of primal urges within us, is really in control. I submitted the story to Campbell and got a phone call from him — I’d never met him.

“I want to talk to you about the story. I want to buy it but I want some changes. Will you come and see me?”

“Oh God, yes, Mr. Campbell.” It was when their office was out in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Now, you’ve got to picture me, a guy from Madison Avenue writing scripts; all I know is the networks, the advertising agencies and all that jazz, it’s what I’m used to. I’m also used to the rates that they pay. But I have to meet Campbell.

I go out to Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I come to this goddamn printing plant, this factory, expecting to be ushered into the great office of this great man. But I go into this tacky little office which is about two feet by four feet and here is this guy who is about the size of what we would call in American football, a defensive tackler. He’s about 19 feet high, 47 feet wide, a towering guy. He sits behind his desk and I squirm into the one visitors’ chair.

He says, “Now about your story. Freud is finished!”

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 6: John W. Campbell and Dianetics’ »