Posts tagged ‘Clubs’

 

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.

On a day late in August, in the year of 1976, I was sitting at my ease in a very comfortable first-class seat in a four-engined jet that was just about to land at my favorite airport in the world. I was sipping on a nearly empty glass of Hires root beer, which the stew had already replenished for me twice, and I was prepared to swallow what remained in the glass as soon as the captain ordered us to get ready for landing. I was employed in a well-paid job as the science-fiction editor for Bantam Books, and I confidently expected to be offered a package including quite a lot more money as soon as I got around to sitting down with my boss and talking about that subject. It won’t be much of a surprise to you if I mention that I was feeling good.

I might have been feeling even better if I had known one important fact, namely that this was the day when I would make the best decision of my life, but that information had not yet been revealed to me. The only “best” that I was aware of in my mind was the one that related to the airport we were approaching, Kansas City Intercontinental.

Now, I emphasize right away that what I’m talking about is the airport itself, not about the cities it served. No one has ever dreamed of two enchanted weeks of vacationing either in Kansas City, Kansas, or in the other Kansas City. You know, the one that couldn’t think of a decent name of their own, so they simply swiped the name of their next door neighbor.

KCI’s superlative qualities had nothing to do with the cities it served. It’s the design of the airport itself that is the marvel. You see, when your plane lands, it will taxi to its own gate, set into the outer perimeter of one of the three great circles that hold all the jet gates in the airport. The aircraft door opens, freeing you to go up the short ramp to the walkway that surrounds the entire circle of gates.

A half-dozen or so more steps take you to the baggage claim for your suitcase. It is probably there already, waiting for you before you get there, because now it is only a couple of yards from the place where it rode out the flight, which was in the baggage compartment of your jet, and that other place where it is now, which is firmly on the solid ground of the airport’s baggage claim. You never have to search for your bag in a mass of other bags originating from Buffalo and Barcelona and Bujumbura, either. None of those bags was ever aboard this flight. (Well, I mean, unless that’s where you’re originating from yourself.) Then, bags in hand, you take ten or a dozen steps more and you’re out in the open air, standing at the curb of the outermost strip of the great wheel, waving at a cab which is slowly cruising somewhere along the wheel, and will shortly pick you up right where you stand. Or, if what you want to board instead of a cab is the bus that takes you to the parking lot, or to car rentals, or some other destination, those will also be cruising the great wheel and they will pick you up in minutes. That takes very little more effort to summon, and certainly no more walking than the cab. What more can you ask?

 
Oh, I know what you might ask to make your trip more enjoyable still. You might ask for it to be at some destination other than one of the twin Kansas Cities, and there, I must confess, I have not been entirely frank with you.

I admit I wasn’t happy just about going to either of the Kansas Cities in itself. That city is — either of those cities is — hardly anyone’s favorite gotta-go-there destination for tourism. What elevated my mood, when it wasn’t depressing it, was what I would be doing when I got there, which was attending the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which had been my custom for most of the years since 1939. (That 1939 one was the first Worldcon of all, the one that I and a few other Futurians were unjustly kicked out of. If you want more details on this event, simply pick up your treasured copy of The Way the Future Was and turn to page 76.) Anyway, that fannish rumble was long ago. Hardly anyone who was involved is still alive. Or cares.)

For me, and for my nearest and dearest, the Worldcons were the places we most looked forward to visiting each year, Sometimes they were held at places that we loved to visit anyway — London, Toronto, a couple of American cities where we had well-loved but not frequently visited friends and relatives. The specific city didn’t all that much matter, though. It was the con itself that was the attraction, the place where we could count on getting together with good friends that we didn’t see every day, because they lived so ridiculously far away — like Patrice Duvic from France, and Sashiko and Takumi Shibano from Japan, and Yuli Kagarlitsky from what was then still called the Soviet Union, and batches of others from Italy and the UK and Sweden and Spain and Brazil, and, of course, from many of the remoter parts of the U.S.A. itself as well.

So what I was really looking forward to was the people who comprised the con itself. That is, I was until I got to my hotel.

Continue reading ‘Arrival: The Happiest Airport’ »

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.

Amazing-June 1936

 

The development of a professional writer is marked by a number of stages, each identified by a particular event. My own development was accelerated by the fact that by the time I was 14 or so I had come to know people — Johnny Michel and Don Wollheim — who had actually sold works to professional science-fiction magazines.

(Well, “sold” is putting it a bit strong, since neither of them had really been paid for their work. In fact, that’ s why they had come to Geegee Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League in the first place; to put pressure on Hugo Gernsback to pay the writers for his Wonder Stories by denouncing him to his most loyal fans, the ones who had joined his club.)

Anyway, I listened to them reverently, and in fact learned a great deal. One of things I learned was that, surprisingly, the editors of science-fiction magazines were in some ways indistinguishable from ordinary human beings. They went to offices to work — well, I knew that because I had discovered on my own the existence of writers’ magazines that actually gave addresses for those offices. I had even experimentally tried mailing one or two of my early stories to one or two of those sf markets. What I learned additionally from Donald and Johnny was that you could go in person to some of those offices, and that some of those editors, sometimes, would actually talk to you.

That particular nugget of information was worth actual cash to me. As I had learned from my study of Writers Digest, I could mail in my stories — and had done so. The catch to that was that I was required to enclose postage for the return trip in the (likely) event of rejection. That had amounted, in the last story I had submitted by mail, to 9¢ in stamps each way, total 18¢. While the cost, if I delivered them in person, would be only a nickel each way for the subway. (Plus, of course, whatever price could be put on my time for the 45 minutes each way it would take for me to do it — but, then, nobody else was offering to buy any of my time at any price.)

That represented a nearly 50-percent reduction in my cost of doing business, or even more — much, much more! — if I had enough stories to submit to make a continuing process out of it. I could, say, take the subway to editor A’s office to pick up rejected story X and at the same time submit new story Y, then walk (no cost for walking) to the office of editor B to try story X on him. And there was no reason for me to limit myself to a single story each way at each office.

The only thing that could prevent me from working at that much greater volume was that I hadn’ t written enough stories to make such economies of scale pay off, and that, boys and girls, is how I became a literary agent.

 
Continue reading ‘Early Editors’ »

Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison

After the Harrison family settled in, just outside of Dublin, I feared we would lose touch with them again. That didn’t happen. Those were the years when the airlines were cutting their prices and increasing their amenities every week or so; world travel became easier for many of us, and tempting science-fiction cons and other events kept cropping up in all sorts of foreign settings. Both Harry and I took full advantage of the new opportunities, and if I didn’t run into him in Rio de Janeiro I was likely to have another chance before long in Milan.

We weren’t the only sf jet-setters, either; fans and writers like Brian Aldiss in England and Sam Lundwall in Sweden covered about as much of the Earth’s surface as Harry and I. We were together in some town when Harry got a truly brilliant idea. We all, on one occasion or another, had visited the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, and we had all had the experience of meeting a local or two who turned out to become a friend.

And then one of us said, “What a pity Russians can’t get visas to come to Worldcons.” And Harry spoke up, with a sudden big smile, “You know what? Your countries and theirs wouldn’t give them visas because of the Cold War. But I’m from Ireland, and Ireland isn’t a member of NATO!”

And as soon as he got home he began talking to some friendly Irish diplomats. They all confirmed that there wouldn’t be any political problem to inviting Russians to a Dublin con.

So Harry immediately set about creating one.

 

When Harrycon happened, it was a blast. A couple of dozen top sf writers showed up, 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, among others, my own personal best Russian friend, Yuli Kagarlitsky, author of the USSR’s only scholarly book on science fiction, Shto eta fantastika, and Vasili Zakharchenko, editor of a boys’ magazine that sometimes published translated American sf stories, and paid for them, in rubles and kopecks, in cash. And when it was over four of us — Harry and I, plus Brian W. Aldiss and Sam Lundwall — kept wishing we could do it regularly, and among the four of us, we thought up a way of getting it done.

The USSR, and indeed almost all the Stalinite countries, wouldn’t let their people go abroad just for fun. But if the purpose was to be delegates to some world literary or scientific societies, well, certainly they wanted the hammer and sickle flag displayed on the world stage.

It turned out to be the easiest revolution we ever caused. We constituted ourselves a scholarly body called World SF, printed up letterheads with Harry listed as president and the other three of us, our countries of origin prominently displayed, listed as vice-presidents and began mailing invitations to people of interest. And almost at once they began to arrive.

Of course, to invite people to speak at international meetings required that we cook up meetings for them to address. But that was easy to do, and, somewhat to our surprise, the World SF meetings themselves became important annual events. Some were quite small, involving twenty or thirty, or rarely even fewer, in attendance, but some were huge, for example the one hosted in Chengdu, China.

World SF kept going until the collapse of the Soviet Union began the changes in many of the world’s repressive governments that eased travel restrictions. Then it wasn’t needed any more and it gradually withered away, but it did the job Harry wanted it to, and without his driving energy, it might never have happened.

Harry was a good and crowd-pleasing writer. He was also a human being who did his best to make the world a kinder place. We’ll miss him.

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Cyril Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John B. Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes and Donald A. Wollheim, from left. (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., July 1939.)

Cyril Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John B. Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes and Donald A. Wollheim, from left. (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., July 1939.)
 

Jack Robins

Jack Robins
 

 
Guest Post By Jack Robins

 
One of the articles I had written, “There Ought To Be a Law Against It,” described what had actually happened at one of the dinners we had at that Chinese restaurant we frequented.

 

There Ought To Be a Law Against It

Wollheim, Lowndes, Cohen and I were eating a Chinese dinner one Sunday evening and everything went well (except for the waiter’s giving Cohen’s order to Lowndes and Donald’s to me before we could get things straightened out) until it came to the dessert. We had all ordered mixed Chinese fruits but I was the first to finish it. I had put the last bit of fruit into my mouth and was fishing around for anything that I possibly might have left over when I noticed a brown-black speck floating around in the fluid remaining in the dish. I passed the plate around and asked the boys what they thought they saw in it. Chet Cohen said he saw a baby cockroach and then looked at me as if he wanted to know what the matter was and why I asked him such a silly question. Lowndes insisted it was a “chickroach.” Upon being challenged by Cohen, Lowndes declared that baby chickens were not called baby chickens but “chicks,” and that, therefore, you could not call a baby cockroach anything but a “chickroach.” Wollheim advised me not to show it to the waiter since the latter might charge me extra for it. Lowndes pointed out that, after all a “chickroach” is a Chinese delicacy. Cohen stated that I would undoubtedly have to pay a good deal of money for it in China. Wollheim declared that the waiter would probably swallow it right before my eyes to show me it would not harm me. They all assured me, however, that the waiter most likely would not charge me anything extra for it. In the meantime they finished off their portions of dessert with gusto. I did not show the baby roach to the waiter, however, since I was afraid he would give me another dishful of mixed Chinese fruits in exchange.

Once during the World’s Fair Days in 1939 around the fourth of July, Don Wollheim, John Michel (whose right arm was always giving him trouble until a doctor finally was able to treat it with penicillin), Lowndes, Chester Cohen, and I decided to go on a trip to Tarrytown. I don’t know why we wanted to go. But since that was what they wanted to do, we went.

We took the IRT to the last stop in the Bronx and walked, walked, and walked, all the way to Tarrytown, New York. I had taken along a cheap, used 35mm camera and I took pictures of all of my friends while we wandered the streets of Tarrytown. But being shy and humble, I neglected to ask any of them to take a picture of me, and none of them offered. After awhile we were all famished. We found a diner and went in to eat. Lowndes and I were too poor to order a meal but we noticed on the menu that we could get a quarter of a head of lettuce for 15¢. That was within our budget so we ordered it and asked them to put on it Russian dressing. I thought at the time that it was the most delicious meal I had ever had. For the return trip, we thankfully did not have to walk back. Donald led us to the Tarrytown railroad station and we rode a train back to the City and finally took the subway to our respective homes.

When Damon Knight was writing the book The Futurians, and I told him about the pictures I had taken during our Tarrytown trip, he became interested and wanted to see if he could use any of them for his pending book. I sent him the negatives. The only picture I know that he definitely used was a snapshot of the building containing the apartment that he and other Futurians shared, “The Ivory Tower.” Some say it was called that because of the ivory paint on the walls. But there is a secondary undertone that says, “Here abide writers, who live in their own ivory tower and look at the world through special lenses that provide a distorted view.”

Once at a Lunacon, the Wollheims (Elsie and Don), Robert Lowndes, my son and I were in the only restaurant at the hotel and we were talking about my son’s possible career as an artist, and the difficulties he was having. Robert, who was then an editor of magazines, recalled some of his own early difficulties in the writing field and then told us that we all ultimately end up working in some aspect of our dreams and aspirations, even though it might not be in the goals we originally started with. Elsie and Don agreed. I now realize Robert’s statement was really a summation of his life.

Years later I met Robert in an elevator at a Lunacon. We had not seen each other for a good number of years. Without much ado, he greeted me as if we had seen each other yesterday, and, referring to Edward E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne, which had appeared in print as a serial in a science-fiction magazine, he said with a smile of appreciation, “Isn’t it wonderful that Doc Smith lived long enough to write this story?” I felt then a warmth, a continuation, a never-never ending to a relationship and I realized that here was a friend I would badly miss if he died.

And now I do miss him.

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Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Jack Robins

Jack Robins
 

 
Guest Post By Jack Robins

I recall many things about Robert W. Lowndes, how soft-spoken he was, how much he enjoyed studying old science fiction stories, and how warm and friendly he was.

I remember one time, when John Michel, Don Wollheim, Lowndes and I were in a bar each drinking something. Lowndes ordered a white wine, I believe it was Sauternes. He took a sip and let the small amount of fluid roll over his tongue to relish the flavor and he held it there for a long while before swallowing. He told me the only way to appreciate wine was to sip it slowly and savor the flavor. I now think that was just rationalization for not having sufficient funds to order a second glass. But at the time I was so impressed by his sophistication that for a long time, the only wines I preferred to drink were white wines and I would try to make the flavor last in my mouth a long time. Many years later, I mentioned this incident to Robert but he said he could not remember it.

Once after a meeting, when we were about to go to our respective homes, Robert surprised me by saying he wanted to go home with me. I was hesitant. My parents had no phone at the time so I could not ask my mother if it would be all right. “I have to,” he told me. “I have no place to sleep tonight.” That did it. I said, “Sure.”

When we got to my home and I explained things to my mother, she accepted Robert and fed us dinner. The apartment was rather small. There was one big bedroom, no privacy. Normally I slept alone on a full sized bed on one side of the bedroom and my father and mother shared the bed on the other side. So that night Robert and I had to sleep in my bed. There was no other room. I slept well but I don’t know how Robert fared. The following morning my mother fed us a good breakfast.

Always, whenever I went to meet with the Futurians, I had to go to Michel’s house, and later on to the apartment they shared. No one had ever come to my house. Now, having a fellow Futurian visit me at my home, sharing my food and even my bed, made me feel good. Worrying about Robert, I asked him did he want to spend another night at my house.

He said, “Absolutely not.” I asked him why. He said, “Isn’t it obvious?” He would not give any details. I did not press him to find out whether it was because of the lack of privacy, the forced sharing of my bed, the single bathroom, or the poverty he observed. But I was glad to have helped him out that one night.

Lowndes used to regale us with quotes from early science fiction stories. He would stand before us and read paragraphs from stories in old magazines from his or Don Wollheim’s collection, and we would groan at what we thought was bad writing. One such story that drove us to loud laughter involved a manlike robot that was the house servant. When providing refreshment, the robot was asked by a visitor to join him in a drink. The robot declined, stating, “The drink affects the delicate enamel of my teeth and once that is gone, the rest soon follows.” This sentence was repeated so many times in the story that I doubt any of us listeners could ever forget it. We thought that the robot was the only thing of merit in the story. It was not made clear whether the robot was referring to the effect of sugar on the teeth and that once the protective enamel was gone, the rest of the teeth soon followed, or whether, as Lowndes believed, considering what the robot was made of, once the enamel was gone, the rest of the robot would also deteriorate and vanish.

In those early days, we were often fond of walking long distances around Flatbush, Brooklyn, finally ending up in an ice cream parlor or candy store for sodas. The basic group included: Wollheim, Michel, Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and me. Occasionally Dick Wilson would join us. We continued this ritual even after Michel, Wollheim, Kornbluth and Lowndes had decided to room together in the first apartment they jointly rented.

During each of these walks, Kornbluth would relate a shaggy dog story. It was about an unemployed, destitute man who sees an ad in a paper left on a park bench, offering a huge reward for a lost shaggy dog. Just then he sees a huge shaggy dog ambling about and becomes convinced this was the one that was lost. He grabs the dog and endeavors to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, he meets up with many difficult and life-threatening obstacles on the way to returning the dog and finally, his clothes in rags, many cuts and bruises all over his face and body, he rings the doorbell of the dog’s owner. A man, obviously a butler, regards him while sniffing snobbishly and asks what he wanted. “I’ve found your shaggy dog and I’ve come for the reward,” our hero says. The butler looks at it with disdain and says, “It’s not that shaggy,” and slams the door on the man. It was a pointless and unappealing story, but the fun was in inventing the obstacles that faced the hero.

Each time we took the walk, Cyril Kornbluth would tell this story in his deep melodious voice that made each word sound like a pronouncement of doom. At every rendition, Cyril’s imagination would fly through fantastic difficulties that had us laughing despite the morbid character of the story. In Cyril’s inventiveness, the hero might struggle with someone and get a black eye or two, or he might get hit by a truck and end up in the hospital, or something else would happen to him before he could return the dog. Each time he repeated the story it had a different set of obstacles. Cyril’s vivid imagination was impressive.

One day, Kornbluth couldn’t be with us. Robert took over the telling and let his own imagination take rein. His soft, pleasant version was not as predictive of doom as Kornbluth’s, but his imagination was just as effective. I realize now that those storytelling incidents were training for later authorhood.

After the group had obtained the apartment they shared, we would occasionally go to a Chinese restaurant some blocks away and order our evening meal. We were all poor and could not afford anything sumptuous. Imagine a ceramic bowl six or seven inches in diameter, about an inch and a quarter high, filled with such recipes as fried rice or chow mein or chop suey, all for 25¢, including dessert. To us this was the height of extravagance, and during the time we were eating we felt wealthy and that we were eating like the super rich.

One day in late March, during the period when Lowndes was publishing the fanzine Science Fiction Weekly, I urged Robert to put out an April Fool’s issue. He was very reluctant. He depended upon paid subscribers to finance the publishing plus a little money for himself, and he was also beholden to various sources who revealed to him all the latest happenings in the science fiction field that he could publish. If he issued an April Fool’s issue, his subscribers might feel cheated or he might offend the ones who supplied his material. Finally I convinced him that issuing an extra April Fool’s supplement and naming it Science Fiction Weakly would do him no harm and the readers might even appreciate it. The issue he finally prepared was one page, two columns on each side of the page, each column being a single article of about 300 words. I wrote up three humorous articles, taking up three of the columns and someone else wrote the fourth. I don’t know how many of the readers took to the April Fool’s issue, but since Robert was still publishing the paper thereafter, I guess they must have been amused.

 
To be continued.
 

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