Posts tagged ‘John W. Campbell’

he Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

I haven’t been in the habit of putting my own stories in the blog, but there are one or two that I think belong here. “The Reunion at the Mile-High” was one. I wrote it as a “festschrift” story for Isaac Asimov and it, along with a dozen or so similarly born stories by other writers, made a volume given to him to celebrate his long and glorious career.

What tickled me was what he said after he’d read it. He clutched his chest and said, “I suddenly thought, what if the story had been true?”

The Reunion at the Mile-High

By Frederik Pohl

In those long and long-ago days — it’s been half a century! — we were not only young, we were mostly poor. We were all pretty skinny, too, though you wouldn’t think that to look at us now. I know this, because I have a picture of the twelve of us that was taken right around 1939. I dug it out to loan it to my publisher’s public relations people just the other day, and I looked at it for a long time before I put it in the overnight mail. We didn’t took like much, all grinning into the camera with our hairless, hopeful teenage faces. If you’d been given a couple of chances to guess, you might have thought we were a dozen Western Union boys on our day off (remember Western Union boys?), or maybe the senior debating club at some big-city all-boy high school. We weren’t any of those things, though. What we actually were was a club of red-hot science-fiction fans, and we called ourselves the Futurians.

That old photograph didn’t lie. It just didn’t tell the whole truth. The camera couldn’t capture the things that kept us together, because they were all inside our heads. For one thing, we were pretty smart — we knew it ourselves, and we were very willing to tell you so. For another, we were all deeply addicted readers of science fiction — we called it “stf “in those days, but that’s a whole other story. We thought stf was a lot of fun (all those jazzy rocket ships and zippy death rays, and big-chested Martians and squat, sinister monsters from Jupiter — oh, wow!) That wasn’t all of it, though. We also thought stf was important. We were absolutely sure that it provided the best view anyone could have of T*H*E  F*U*T*U*R *E, by which we meant the kind of technologically dazzling, socially Utopian, and generally wonderful world which the rather frayed and frightening one we were stuck with living in might someday become. And, most of all, we were what our old Futurian buddy, Damon Knight, calls toads. We weren’t very athletic. We didn’t get along all that well with our peers — and not even as well as that with girls. And so we spent a lot of time driven in upon our own resources, which, mostly, meant reading. We all read a lot.

We even more or less agreed that we were toads. At least, we knew that girls didn’t seem anxious to fall bedazzled by any of our charms. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t that we were hopelessly ugly — well, not all of us, anyway. Dave Kyle and Dirk Wylie and Dick Wilson were tall and actually pretty good-looking. Even the snapshot shows that. I think our problem was partly that we were scared of girls (they might laugh at us — some of them no doubt had), and partly a matter of our internal priorities. We were more into talking than tennis, and we put books ahead of jitterbugging.

That was half a century ago. In other words, history. My secretary, who is also my chief research assistant when I need a specific fact from the library, tells me that 62.8 percent of the people alive today weren’t even born then, which undoubtedly means that that ancient year of 1939 seems as remote and strange to most people now as the Spanish-American War did to me.

I would like to point out, though, that 1939 didn’t seem all that hot to us, either, even while we were living it. It wasn’t a fun time. We were the generation caught between Hoover and Hitler. We had the breadlines of the Great Depression to remember in our recent past, and the Nazi armies looming worrisomely in our probable future. When we looked out at the real world we lived in we didn’t much like what we saw.

So, instead, we looked inside the stf magazines we adored, and then we looked inside our own heads. We read a lot, and we tried to write. Because the other thing about us, you see, was that we were all pretty hardworking and ambitious. Since we weren’t thrilled by our lives, we tried to change them. We had our meetings — we’d get together, once a month or so, in somebody’s basement or somebody else’s living room, and we’d talk about this and that; and then we’d go out for an ice-cream soda; and then we’d gradually splinter apart. Some of us would go home — especially the ones who had to get up in the morning, like Isaac Asimov. (He worked at his parents’ candy store, and the commuters started coming in for their morning papers at five-thirty a.m.) Most of the rest of us would just wander, in twos and threes. I’d start out by walking Dirk and Johnny Michel to their subway station. But generally, by the time we got to it, we’d be in the middle of some really interesting discussion (did the General Motors Futurama at the World’s Fair have the right idea about the World of Tomorrow, all twelve-lane superhighways and forty-story apartments? Were John Campbell’s Arcot, Wade & Morey stories as good as Doc Smith’s Skylark?) — so then they’d walk me back to my station … or around the block … or anywhere.

Always talking. Talking mattered to us. Writing mattered, too, almost as much. We did a lot of it, on our battered second-hand portable typewriters, each on his own but always with the intention of showing what we had written to the others. Words mattered, and we particularly intended to make our words matter. Somehow. We didn’t really know how, exactly, but when you think of it, I guess we succeeded. If we were toads, as Damon says, then sometime or other some wandering fairy princess must have come along and kissed us, and turned us into something different … or we wouldn’t have been getting together at the top of the Mile-High Building for our Fiftieth Reunion, with reporters allover the place and our older, considerably more impressive faces stating out at the world on the Six O’Clock News.

You can’t fly nonstop from Maui to New York, even on the sleeper, because they don’t let flying boats operate over the continent. So I had to change planes in Los Angeles. Naturally I missed my connection, so when we finally landed at Idlewild I was late already.

The porter cut a taxi out of the snarl for me — it’s wonderful what a five-dollar bill can do at an airport. As I got into the cab, I stretched my neck to look toward the New York City skyline, and I could see the Mile-High Building poking far above everything else, looking like a long, long hunting horn sitting on its bell … if you can imagine a hunting horn with gaps along its length, held together (as it seemed at that distance) by nothing bigger than a couple of pencils. They say they need those wind gaps in the tower, because a hurricane just might push the whole thing over if they didn’t allow spaces for the air to get through. Maybe so. I’m willing to believe that the gaps make the building safer, but they certainly aren’t reassuring to look at.

Still, the Mile-High has managed to stay up for — let’s see — it must be six or seven years now, and it’s certainly an imposing sight You can see it from anywhere within forty or fifty miles of New York. More than that. It’s so immense that, even across most of Queens and part of Brooklyn, when I looked at it! was distinctly looking up. Then, when I got out of the cab at its base, it was more than big, it was scary. I couldn’t help flinching a little. Whenever I look straight up at a tall building I get the feeling it’s about to fall on me, and there’s nothing taller than the Mile-High.

A limousine had pulled up behind me. The man who got out looked at me twice, and I looked at him thrice, and then we spoke simultaneously. “Hello, Fred,” he said, and I said:

“Doc, how are you? It’s been a long time.”

It had been — twenty years, anyway. We were obviously going to the same place, so Doc Lowndes waited for me while I paid off the taxi, even though it was gently drizzling on Sixth Avenue. When I turned away from the taxi driver, after a little argument about the tip, Doc was doing what I had been doing, staring up at the top of the Mile-High. “Do you know what it looks like?” he asked. “It looks like the space gun from Things to Come. Remember?”

I remembered. Things to Come had been our cult movie, back in the l930s; most of us had seen it at least a dozen times. (My own record was thirty-two.) “Yeah, space, I said, grinning. “Rocket ships. People going to other planets. We’d believe almost anything in those days, wouldn’t we?”

He gave me a considering look. “I still believe,” he told me as we headed for the express elevators to the top.

The Mile-High Building isn’t really a Things to Come kind of edifice. It’s more like something from that even more ancient science fiction film, Just Imagine silly futuristic spoof packed with autogyros and Mars rockets and young couples getting their babies out of vending machines. I first saw Just Imagine when I was ten years old. The heroine was a meltingly lovely teenager, just imported from Ireland to Hollywood, and that movie is why all my life I have been in love with Maureen O’Sullivan.

The Mile-High Building doesn’t have any of those things, least of all (worse luck!) the still lovely Maureen, but it is definitely a skyscraper that puts even those old movie-makers to shame. To get to the top you go a measured mile straight up. Because the elevators are glass-walled, you get to see that whole incredible five thousand plus feet dropping away as you zoom upward, nearly a hundred miles an hour at peak velocity.

Doc swayed a little as we accelerated. “Pretty fast,” he said. “Real fast,” I agreed, and began telling him all about the building. It’s hollow inside, like an ice-cream cone, and I knew quite a lot about it because when I was still living in New York City, before I could afford the place on Maui, I used to know a man named Mike Terranova. Mike was a visualizer working for an architect’s office — at another point in his career he did the drawings for the science fiction comic strip I wrote for a while, but that’s another story, too. Mike really was better at doing machines and buildings than at drawing people, which is probably why our strip only ran one year, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. He was a big fan of the Mile-High. “Look at the wind gaps in it,” he told me once, as we walked down Central Park West and saw the big thing looming even thirty blocks away. “That’s to let the wind through, to reduce the force so it shouldn’t sway. Of course, they’ve also got the mass dampers on the two hundredth and three hundredth and four hundredth floors, so it doesn’t sway much anyway.”

“It’s just another skyscraper, Mike,” I told him, amused at his enthusiasm.

“It’s a different kind of skyscraper! They figured out the best offices are the ones with an outside view, so they just didn’t build any offices inside! It’s all hollow — except for the bracing struts and cables, and for the three main floor — through sections, where you change elevators and they have all the shops andthings.”

“It’s brilliant,” I said; and actually it was. And I was explaining all this to Doc, and all the time I was talking we were flashing past those vast central atria that are nearly a hundred stories high each, with their balconies, and flowers growing down from the railings, and lianas crisscrossing the central spaces; and Doc was looking at me with that patient expression New Yorkers reserve for out-of-towners.

But all he said was, “I know.”

Then I was glad enough for the break when we walked across the hundredth-story level, between the soda fountains and the clothing shops, to the next bank of elevators, and then the next. Then you get out at the top, five thousand and change feet above the corner of Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, and you have to take an escalator up another flight to the club itself

I don’t like standing still, so I took the escalator steps two at a time. Doc followed gamely. He was puffing a little as we reached the door the doorman was already holding open for us.

“Put on a little weight, I see,” I told him. “Too much riding in limousines, I’d say. There must be big bucks in the poetry racket these days.”

I guess my tone must have sounded needling, because he gave me a sidelong look. But he also gave me a straightforward reply, which was more than I deserved. “I just don’t like taxi drivers,” he said. “Believe me, I’m not getting rich from my royalties. Publishing poetry doesn’t pay enough to keep a pig in slop. What pays my bills is readings. I do get a lot of college dates.”

I was rebuked. See, we Futurians had been pretty sharp-tongued kids, big on put-down jokes and getting laughs at each other’s expense; just the thought of coming to the reunion seemed to get me back in that mood. I wasn’t used to seeing Bob in his present gentler incarnation.

Then the white-haired woman took our coats, and even gentle Bob got a kind of smirk on his face as I handed over my trenchcoat. I knew what he was looking at, because I was wearing my usual at-home outfit: canary-yellow slacks, beach-boy shirt, and thongs. “I didn’t have a chance to change,” I said defensively.

“I was just thinking how nice it is for you folks that live in Hawaii,” he told me seriously, and led the way into the big reception room where the party had already started.

There had certainly been changes. It wasn’t like the old days. Maybe it was because they were talking about making Bob poet laureate for the United States. Or maybe it was just the difference between twenty and seventy. We didn’t have to explain how special we were now, because the whole world was full of people willing to explain that to us.

There were at least a hundred people in the room, hanging around the waiters with the champagne bottles and studying the old pictures on the wall. It was easy to see which were the real Futurians: they were the ones with the bald spots or the white beards. The others were publicity people and media people. There were many more of them than of us, and their average age was right under thirty.

Right in the middle was Dr. Isaac Asimov, sparring good-naturedly with Cyril Kombluth. They were the center of the biggest knot, because they were the really famous ones. General Kyle was there — in uniform, though he was long retired by now — telling a young woman with a camera how he got those ribbons at the battle of Pusan. Jack Robinson was standing in the background, listening to him — no cameras pointed at Jack, because the reporters didn’t have much interest in schoolteachers, even when that one had been one of Harvard’s most distinguished professors emeritus. I saw Jack Gillespie, with a gorgeous blonde six inches taller than he was on his arm — she was the star of one of his plays — and Hannes Bok, looking older and more content than he used to, drinking Coca-Cola and munching on one of the open-faced sandwiches. There wasn’t any doubt they were pretty well known by any normal standards. Jack had already won a Pulitzer, and Hannes’s early black-and-whites were going for three thousand dollars apiece in the galleries on Fifiy-seventh Street. But there’s a difference between say-didn’t-I-see-you-once-on-TV and famous. The media people knew which ones to point their cameras at. Cyril didn’t have one Pulitzer, he had three of them, and the word was he’d have had the Nobel Prize if only he’d had the sense to be born a Bolivian or a Greek. And as to Isaac, of course — well, Isaac was Isaac. Adviser to Presidents, confidant of the mighty, celebrated steady guest of the Jack Paar show and star of a hundred television commercials. He wasn’t just kind of famous. He was the one of us who couldn’t cross a city street without being recognized, because he was known by features to more people than any senator, governor, or cardinal of the Church. He even did television commercials. I’d seen him in Hawaii, touting the Pan American Clipper flights to Australia … and he didn’t even fly.

They’d blown up that old photograph twelve feet long, and Damon Knight was staring mournfully up at it when Doc and I came over to shake hands. “We were such kids,” he said. True enough. We’d ranged from sixteen — that was Cyril — to Don Wollheim, the old man of the bunch: why, then he had been at least twenty-three or twenty-four.

So much has been written about the Futurians these days that sometimes I’m not sure myself what’s true, and what’s just press-agent puffery. The newspaper stories make us sound very special. Well, we certainly thought we were, but I doubt that many of our relatives shared our opinion. Isaac worked in his parents’ candy store, Johnny Michel helped his father silk-screen signs for Woolworth’s Five and Ten, Dirk Wylie pumped gas at a filling station in Queens, Dick Wilson shoved trolleys of women’s dresses around the garment district on Seventh Avenue. Most of the rest of us didn’t have real jobs at all. Remember, it was the tail end of the Great Depression. I know that for myself I considered I was lucky, now and then, to get work as a restaurant busboy or messenger for an insurance company.

A young woman came over to us. She was reading from a guest list, and when she looked at me she wonderfully got my name right “I’m from Saturday Evening Post Video, “she explained. “You were one of the original Futurians, weren’t you?”

“We all were. Well, Doc and I were. Damon came along later.”

“And so you knew Dr. Asimov and Mr. Kornbluth from the very beginning?”

Continue reading ‘The Reunion at the Mile-High’ »

Part 2 of Review of the Campbell-Swisher Letters

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from efanzines.com)

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from efanzines.com)

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.

 
On October 5, 1937, John W. Campbell’s world changed. The powers at Street & Smith, on F. Orlin Tremaine’s advice, appointed him to replace Tremaine as editor of Astounding Stories. That must have been a shock to Campbell, who’d been worriedly wondering who would get the job, as well as a solution to the worst of his money worries.

I had guessed elsewhere the his weekly paycheck was probably $35, but I was wrong. Actually it was $30. Yet that was a sum the young Campbells had only dreamed of having — was enough, indeed, to permit him to buy a Ford (presumably on the installment plan), and thus to manage, among other things, that long desired trip back to New England to visit old friends. But that didn’t happen right away. Getting used to his new job kept him jumping

He would have liked to start afresh, with a lineup of stories that he had chosen in the first place, and edited to make them more like the stories he himself wrote, in the second. He didn’t have that luxury. Tremaine had bought a number of stories, which now sat in the magazine’s inventory and had to be published. This appeared to have filled the magazine through its January 1938 issue; Campbell’s first editorial, in the December 1937 number said February would be a “mutant” issue. It didn’t say what part of the magazine would get mutated. It turned out to be the stories.

The magazine did not show the effect of a new hand at the tiller very quickly. That wasn’t John’s fault. No magazine can show the full effects of a new editorial policy overnight. Not only are there the inventory of stories bought under the old policies to work off, but it takes a while to let the contributors know what the new policies are.

What John did with the submissions that kept coming in was first to give each one a fair reading (sometimes this may not be much more than the first page; you can tell), and then divide them into two parts. The ones he didn’t have any interest in got a printed rejection slip. The ones that had something good about them got a typed note from John saying what he liked about the story and what about the story kept him from buying it. Those went back, too. But sometimes they came back again revised to the Campbell prescription and then got bought, and more frequently the next stories Campbell got from that writer were closer to his wishes. (How do I know so much about John’s reading habits? Because he described them to me, and they were so eminently sensible that, when I became a pro editor myself, I adopted them as my own.)

 
There are two points in the letters where John talks about dealings with me. Both of them are wrong. In the first one, he says I bragged to him that my Astonishing Stories sold more copies than his Astounding. That’s incorrect, though. I didn’t know about the difference in sales figures or I certainly would have bragged about it all over town.

The other is in the discussion about putting a non-Jewish pen name on the stories by Milt Rothman that I sold him as Milt’s agent. In the letters, John says he thought it better not to tell me about his reasoning because it might cause misunderstandings. But he did tell me. That led to my advising Milt to do what he said, in fact. On that one, I do have a theory to explain it. I think when he wrote the letter he hadn’t told me his reasoning, but then changed his mind and on a later occasion did tell me.

Well, this got longer and more detailed than a review should. I apologize for that, and in general for taking so long, when all I really wanted to say was if (1) you want to be an editor, or (2) if you’re interested in Campbell as a person, or (3) if you just like a good read on a science-fiction subject — why, then, this is a book for you.

 
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Fantasy Commentator 59-60

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.
 

When John W. Campbell, Jr., washed out of MIT by failing to pass their German course, he didn’t stay in Massachusetts. Instead, he returned to his mother’s home in Orange, New Jersey. He had left some close friendships behind, though, and one of the first things he did after relocating was to write a letter to his Massachusetts friend Robert D. Swisher, a pharmaceutical chemist working for the Monsanto Corporation.

That was the first letter of many, and they were all carefully preserved, misspellings, factual errors and all, by Swisher, and then by his widow. Now they are published, under the guise of an article in the late A. Langley Searles’ fanzine Fantasy Commentator, published as a memorial tribute by Searles’ widow, Alice Becker, M.D. The issue contains nothing but the letters. Its length — 156 large pages — is within accepted book publishing standards. So let’s call it a book, the two of us, all right?

This book, then, contains all the letters John wrote to Swisher over a period of more than twenty years, from John’s early attempts at writing science-fiction stories of his own through his triumphal masterminding of the world’s best science-fiction magazine and his intoxication with L. Ron Hubbard’s invention of Dianetics, followed by his final rejection of that cause — though not of the validity of many of its principles which, called by one name or another, he apparently subscribed to until his death.

As a document bearing on these matters, this is not merely a good, readable book. It is an invaluable one, and the credit for the clarity and completeness that make it such a pleasure to read belongs in no small part to its editor, the late Sam Moskowitz. The source material Sam had to work with was a clutch of actual letters, many of them handwritten and some not easy to decipher, and a considerable fraction of them comprising little more than technical descriptions of the cameras, lenses and films for which the two correspondents shared an affection. All of that photography material Moskowitz skillfully redacted away. What remains is the next best thing to a detailed personal diary of the life of a stand-out major figure in the field of science fiction.

Continue reading ‘The Campbell Letters’ »

Hannes Bok, 1941.

Hannes Bok, 1941.
 

There were a couple of things about Hannes Bok that we didn’t mention last time, but they were important to him. One was his love of music. Indeed, when young Wayne Woodard, as he had been named by his parents, started working out the name he wanted to live his life under, the names he started with were all variants of those of the great early master Johann Sebastian Bach. First it was Johan, then Johannes, then he modified the spelling and came up with Hannes Bok. (Which was a little odd, actually, because Hannes’ favorite composer wasn’t anyone as old-fashioned as a Bach, but the quite modern Finnish master, Sibelius.)

The other great passion of his life took up even more of it than music — and was less sympathetic to most of his fellow fans. That was his passion for astrology. Hannes didn’t just believe in it, he studied it with the same intensity that a disciple might have given to the works of his 12th- or 14th-century master. Hannes went so far as to work out complete astrological readings for a few of his friends. They were detailed and — inasmuch is there is anything that could be called trustworthy about the study of astrology in general — quite trustworthily prepared. Looked at as art objects rather than useful tools, they are in fact well worth hanging on your wall. Which is what I did — way back when, with mine — but it’s long lost now and I can only wish that I had it still.

During the years of the War and just after, Hannes had been having his most prosperous period, doing over a hundred covers for Weird Tales and a dozen other science fiction and fantasy magazines, plus interior black-and-whites for them and covers for Ballantine and many of the semi-pro book publishers that were springing up. Most of them didn’t pay very well, and Hannes had a self-defeating habit of putting in long hours of experimentation on new techniques of enhancing the color on each job. But he was eating, and relatively happy.

That, however didn’t last. Hannes had developed another self-defeating habit, this time of becoming pretty quarrelsome. Sadly, a lot of the people he quarreled with were the customers for his artwork. One after another of them quietly took Hannes’ address out of their card file — which had the effect of cutting down on his income — which had the lock-on effect of making him still more quarrelsome.

I saw very little of Hannes in that immediate post-war period. The only contact I remember is running in to him by accident at someone’s office, I think perhaps John Campbell’s. He didn’t seem particularly thrilled at meeting me again, and I wasn’t overly charmed by his manner. It was quite a while after that that I went up to his desolate little flat and saw him for the last time.

It happened that I had met with Don Wollheim for some reason, maybe for lunch one day, and as I was getting ready to leave he said, “What I have to do now is go up and see Hannes Bok to talk to him about some artwork. Want to come along?”

“Sure,” I said, before I could change my mind. The apartment was pretty far uptown, but the subway got us there quickly enough, and Hannes was buzzing the door open before we even rang his bell.

“I was sitting by the widow, and I saw you guys coming, Have you got my checks?”

Donald’s reason for coming, he had explained to me, was to buy a couple of drawings that he hoped to be able to use in his job at Ace Books, but he shook his head at that. “No checks till we get the art,” he said. “I told you that. Have you got the drawings?”

Hannes complained briefly about that, but he went into the room that he called his studio and came back with two flat packages wrapped in newspaper. “When will I get the checks?” he asked Donald.

“As soon as I can get them signed,” Donald said. “You know what it’s like.”

Hannes gave him a bitter grin. “I do,” he said. Then he turned to me. I guess I’d been looking him over pretty closely. He was a lot skinnier than I remembered and quite a lot surlier.

“Is something the matter?” he asked.

I lied. “No, nothing,” I said. But what I had seen in that quick snarling grin had been a real shock. The man had no teeth at all, not even dentures.

I didn’t take much part in the conversation for a while after that. I was doing my best to understand what it would be like to have no teeth. Hannes wasn’t much older than I was. Under forty, anyway. By no means old enough to be the toothless grandpa he had turned into, and by no means as old as the oldest old fart I’d ever had the actual experience of living with. That particular old fart was my own real grandpa, briefly occupying our back room before Ma had managed to shift him off onto the care of Aunt Marie, who had a bigger house and a bigger yard and a hot, dry attic where he could cure the backyard-grown tobacco no one would give him money to buy.

That was when I figured out that you didn’t have to have all that many calendar years behind you in order to turn into Grandpa. Or worse.

Continue reading ‘Hannes Bok, Part 2: The story with the unhappy ending’ »

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’ »