Posts tagged ‘Critics’

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl, ca. 1977.

From the blog team:

We see that sf critic Dave Truesdale, well-known gadfly, is once again stirring up controversy. But we have long memories, and recall when Truesdale was just another neofan, pubbing his fanzine and gushing about the pros he met.

Truesdale recently reprinted an interview with Fred from his early zine, Tangent. See it in Tangent Online.

In this paragraphless introduction, Truesdale recalls interviewing Fred at a Howard Johnson’s in Eau Clair, Wis., in 1977:

I had learned that Fred Pohl was engaged to speak at one of Wisconsin’s small state colleges in Eau Claire the evening of February 1st and was determined to interview him there. My ladyfriend and I drove nearly halfway across the state from Oshkosh, then sat through the talk where something like 30 students were in attendance. I was getting nervous because it was getting very late and we had to drive home. The talk ended and my hopes for an interview were fading. Fred then suggested we repair to the nearby Howard Johnson’s, get something to eat and do the interview there. We ordered our meals and ate while the tape recorder was running. It ran for well over an hour as we talked and talked. Sometime after midnight the recorder clicked off, we were all tired, and so agreed to call it a night. The separate checks came, but before I could reach for my wallet Fred made it clear that he was going to pickup the check, which he did. We paid the tip and drove Fred to wherever he was staying (I forget exactly where now, after 36 years.) It was a wonderful evening, getting to spend time with Fred and ending up with such a terrific interview. It was much more than I’d hoped for. Reading it for the first time, I hope you come away with it feeling much as I did — and did once again after working up this transcription, getting the chance to relive that night of so long ago. I was 26 years old in February of 1977 and had just discovered fandom and conventions a mere two years earlier, but much of that early period — and the memories like the one Fred gave me that night — they still seem very much like yesterday.

—Dave Truesdale, Tangent Online.

Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon, 1976. (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet.)

Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon, 1976. (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet.)

Marty Greenberg and a couple of the others who were clustered in the Kansas City hotel lobby were coaxing me to stay, and one of those (apparent) teen-age graduate students nailed me down with a comment that was clearly intended to lead to a series of questions, “I understand you know Mr. Heinlein quite well, and I’ve just finished reading his Stranger in a Strange Land,” the apparent teen-ager informed me.

And Marty, eager to put temptation in my way, said, “Tell her the story about the Budrys review.”

Everybody seemed to be listening pretty attentively. Robert A. Heinlein being the Guest of Honor at MidAmeriCon, nobody wanted to go home without a few new Heinlein stories to spread around. The one Marty wanted me to tell was a favorite. I had at the time just recently taken on the job of editing Galaxy when Horace L. Gold got too sick to continue, and I had also just made AJ Budrys the book reviewer for the magazine when Stranger popped up. I handed it over to AJ as his first assignment.

I had told him he had a week to do the review, but at the end of the week, and a few extra days, there was no sign of the review. When I got him on the phone he told me that it was a big book and he would need at least another week or ten days to do it justice. That wasn’t really a surprise, or, indeed, much of a problem. I had confidence in AJ’s writing and was pretty sure the review would be worth waiting for. So I pulled a 5,000-word short story out of inventory to replace it, and rescheduled AJ’s first column for the next issue. And when at last he did deliver the review I saw that, ah, yes, no matter what I had expected, there certainly was going to be a problem.

AJ had given Heinlein’s science-fiction novel the sort of close-focused attention that I suppose Bishop Challoner must have given the Vulgate texts when he was preparing the Rheims Bible. It was a splendid review, both erudite and entertaining.

It described all the influences that must have been whirling around in Robert’s head as he was creating the book, as well as everything that could be said about Robert’s background and private life. Among the liberties AJ had allowed himself in writing the review was the privilege of speculating how much of Heinlein’s Naval Academy experience — the discipline, the hazing of first-year men, the prohibitions of marriage and various other distractions affecting young men and so on — had caused Heinlein’s obviously troubled feelings about patriotism, authority and proper behavior.

I was absolutely certain that the readers would love both the book and the review … but even more convinced that I couldn’t allow Robert’s first glimpse of the review to be when, all unsuspecting of what was in store for him, he opened up his subscription copy of the magazine that contained it.

So I pondered the problem for a while, and then I took out a little insurance policy. There were no such things as Xeroxes in our little office so I had my assistant of the moment — I think by then it was Judy-Lynn Not-Yet-del-Rey — type out a copy of the review, which I mailed off to Heinlein, with a note explaining that, due to the importance of this novel, I would like to hear any comments he might have about the review before scheduling it.

And time passed.

Continue reading ‘Arrival, Part 2: Heinlein Stories’ »

I wrote this more than 20 years ago, for David Hartwell’s critical review zine The New York Review of Science Fiction. I looked it up in connection with a new novel I have begun, tentatively, but almost certainly not permanently, entitled Sweet Home, and thought it might be worth reprinting.
 

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

 
Most of us would argue that science fiction has some special merits denied to most kinds of literature — for instance, its didactic ability to educate, or at least to motivate the desire to be educated, in science, its prophylactic qualities against future shock (if you read enough science fiction hardly anything ever takes you by surprise); its capacity for objective insights into the human condition — what Harlow Shapley called “The View from a Distant Starand so on. Arthur C. Clarke once put it very well when he was asked why he wrote science fiction; he said, “Because no other literature concerns itself with reality.” I’m not sure what “reality” Arthur was talking about, but it is sure that the biggest reality confronting all of us today is change — rapid and widespread change — and science fiction is a literature of change.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

    Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

However, it has recently come to me that there is another way in which science fiction has assets not shared by “mainstream” literature. What led me to think this was a period of reading a lot of Mark Twain, and considering some of the critical assessments of his work.

At first glance, it may seem improbable that the work of this man who died sixteen years before the first science-fiction magazine was published, and never wrote any of the stuff himself (let’s not get into some of his near-misses, like The Mysterious Stranger and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, or that precursor of any number of L. Sprague de Camp novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), has much to do with the subject. But I think it does, and to show what I mean, let’s consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Everybody says Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s greatest work. A fair number of people (of whom I’m one) would even contend that it may well be the greatest American novel ever written. Nevertheless, almost everyone, myself included, feels that the climax of the book does not do justice to what has gone before.

If you haven’t reread Huckleberry Finn in the past four or five years you ought to do it now. It is one of the few books that can be read first at the age of ten, and then again every year or so for the rest of your life, finding new pleasures in it every time. The Duke’s attempt to reconstruct Hamlet’s soliloquy gets funnier the better you know the original. Huck’s relationship to his father, the numb acquiescence of the villagers in the Grangerford-Shepperton feud and its slaughter of the otherwise innocent members of both clans, the abortive lynching — above all, the nature of slavery, as given flesh in Jim — all these things become richer and more insightful as the reader does. The book is a boldly far-reaching triumph, that’s what it is, and any writer who doesn’t envy it is simply himself numbed into complacent ignorance.

But then at the last, when eighty per cent of the book has been a marvel, Tom Sawyer reappears on the Phelps plantation and concocts a lunatic humbug scheme to “free” the slave Jim, who, as Tom well knows, has in fact been freed already by testament of his late owner.

There are some funny, farcical bits in that ending. There are even a few touching ones. Nevertheless. The conclusion of the novel is an affront. Twain has touched our hearts with common human reality; then he pisses it all away in ten chapters of baggy-pants burlesque in which everyone behaves like a fool. There is only one word to describe the last one-fifth of Huckleberry Finn, and that word is dumb.

Continue reading ‘Mark Twain and the Law of the Raft’ »

Algis Budrys (Photo by William Shunn).

Algis Budrys
(Photo by William Shunn).
 

By the mid-1960s, Algis Budrys had become a darling of the critics. In the field of science fiction, two of the most respected at that time were Kingsley Amis and James Blish. Kingsley said that the way A J was going, he might become the most honored sf writer since H. G. Wells. Jim was less restrained. He thought that A J was becoming the finest writer in a second language since Joseph Conrad. One of A J’s stories had already been made into a film, though not a particularly good one, and his future was bright.

It was at that point that A J basically stopped writing science fiction and went off to Chicago to get into the public-relations business.

Why?

Well, I don’t know why. When A J took off for Chicago and a brief career as Mr. Pickle in a relish promoter’s PR campaign, it was a surprise to me. Perhaps it was because of the merciless difference between salary income and writer income that I alluded to earlier. By then the Budrys family census stood at six, with four healthy infant sons that needed to be fed every day — and would inevitably need more and more as the years advanced. But I lost touch with him for a year or two.

When I reconnected with him he had escaped from advertising and gone to work as the book editor for Playboy.

That made a certain amount of sense to me, particularly as he was showing signs of getting back to doing writing for me again. I was still editing for Bob Guinn, who had gradually enriched my expense account enough to permit annual trips to spur authors along . When in Chicago, I always spent some time with the Budryses. Their lives appeared to have slowed down and smoothed out.

But in that, too, I was quite wrong.

One day, back at home in New Jersey, I got a phone call from A J. He had news. The Church of Scientology had decided to honor their founder and principal sage, the science-fiction (and everything else, but best known for his science fiction) author L. Ron Hubbard, by establishing a new contest for talented entry-level sf writers that would pave the way for some of them to make the transition to professional success. Since none of the Scientology people knew much about publishing, they needed to find someone who did to save them from making too many blunders, and they had found A J.

“What I’m trying to do for them now,” he said, “is to try to find them major writers who —”

“No,” I said.

“— would be willing to be judges — what did you say?”

“I said, ‘no,'” I told him.

“But you didn’t let me tell you the good parts,” he said,

“That’s right,” I said. “I said, ‘no.’ ”

See how I handled it? A quick, firm decision, and then on to the next thing. No looking back, either.

Except that a few months later, when A J called again to tell me that Theodore Sturgeon, who A J had taken on as my replacement, was gravely ill, and A J was in a really tough spot, and if I could just help him out until he could find someone else. . . .

So I did it. I helped him out, and kept on doing it for the next thirty years.

 
In my defense, I will say that Writers of the Future, now broadened to include artists of the future, is indeed a good thing for beginning writers and artists, who can use all the help they can get. But there it is.

A J didn’t confine his efforts to Writers of the Future for the rest of his life. There was a prolonged, and expensive, period when he tried his luck as publisher of his own magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, but what happened at the end was simply that his health gave out. For the last several years of his life he was housebound in his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he complained that illness had so sapped his strength that he didn’t have energy for anything. Once he said, “There’s a novel I started in January and I’m not even a quarter through it.”

This was sometime in late spring. I said cheerfully, “So keep on plugging away. Sooner or later you’ll get it written.”

“Written?” he said, “I’m not talking about writing a novel. I’m talking about reading one.”

What was wrong with A J’s health was not a single, simple thing. I believe it was diabetes that kept him housebound for so long, but think it was metastasizing cancer that took him away in June of 2008.

He is missed.

 
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Robert A. Heinlein by David Dyer-Bennet

Robert A. Heinlein

Then there was the affair of Robert Heinlein, Algis Budrys and Stranger in a Strange Land.

I was editor of Galaxy at the time. I had hired AJ as our official book reviewer, a job which he took seriously and performed well, and when Heinlein published a major new novel called Stranger in a Strange Land, AJ went all out in a detailed and penetrating criticism — which, when he delivered it and I began to read, filled me with horror.

If there was one thing I knew about Heinlein it was that he was almost pathologically protective of his privacy — had threatened to sue people who invaded it — and, I was pretty sure, would take a dim view of some of AJ’s quite perceptive remarks. So there was a dilemma. I didn’t want to deprive AJ of an audience for a piece of good, hard work. I also didn’t want to get Robert mad at me. I stewed over the problem for a while, finally decided to leave the decision up to Robert himself and shipped off a copy of the review to him, pleased with myself for having solved the problem.

Then, a week or two later, the mailman handed me a large and heavy manila envelope with Heinlein’s return address on it and, “My God,” I said out loud, “Bob has written me a novelette!”

Algis Budrys

    Algis Budrys

I was wrong about that, though. The twenty or thirty closely typed pages in the envelope weren’t fiction, they were an impassioned denunciation of the review, of invasive reviews in general and of the person who had written it — who, Robert conjectured, was some effete New York bookworm who had never traveled more than a few dozen miles from his home and had no knowledge of what the real world was like.

This was a factual error on Robert’s part, because AJ was actually born in Lithuania, the son of a high-ranking diplomat who was assigned first to Nazi Germany and then, while AJ was still a young boy, the United States. (English was actually AJ’s third language, after Lithuanian and German.) However, I could recognize a cry of pain when I heard it, so I ash-canned the review and told both Robert and AJ that it wouldn’t be published.

I am still not sure that I made the morally correct decision, but anyway it had a happy ending. At the Seattle Worldcon a little later I had the pleasure of introducing AJ to Robert. They hit it off and became friends.

 
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