Posts tagged ‘L. Sprague de Camp’



If you’re on Facebook, you’ve doubtless seen the meme that asks you to list books that have resonated with you.

A few years ago, Suvudo asked Fred about his favorite books.

Fred mentioned several works that had stayed with him throughout his life, including Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, but then went on to write at length about L. Sprague de Camp’s alternate history Lest Darkness Fall and how it influenced him.

We recommend both Fred’s review and de Camp’s novel.

The blog team

Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, 2009. (Photo by Cat Sparx.)

Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, 2009. (Photo by Cat Sparx.)

From time to time, Robert Silverberg has told the world that he had written himself out and was retiring from the field. Fortunately for the rest of us, these periods of abstinence from the computer were so depressing to his irrepressibly auctorial psyche that he fled back to the keyboard before long each time. Now he maintains a delicate balance between time spent in putting words on paper, as it seems God has intended for him to do, and time spent traveling the world to view art treasures in the greatest museums and the tiniest of ancient churches.

Betty Anne and I were lucky enough to join him once or twice when we found ourselves inhabiting the same land mass at a convenient time. One such episode that sticks in my mind took place in Italy in 1989. Bob with his wife, Karen Haber, and I with my own, Elizabeth Anne Hull — the wives both had elected to keep their maiden names, which tells you something about them, but at least they didn’t make us take theirs — had been attending a World SF annual meeting in a little town, up in the mountains, called Fanano.

The meeting had been good. World SF had been started by a few of us in order to give sf writers in every country that possessed any examples of any such native creatures a chance to interact with the major writers and editors of the world, and it had come to function very effectively, especially in helping writers from travel-restricting countries get permission to join us. The Fanano meeting had people from all over Europe, including a couple of groups from the USSR, as well as people from several countries in Asia and, of course, a large contingent from North America.

When it was over, Bob wanted to visit a bunch of old churches along the Adriatic on the way north to Venice, and Betty and I volunteered to go along with him.

I can’t say that I have a compelling interest in old churches. I do like to wander around new places, though, so Betty and the Silverbergs parked near a church and I went off to explore. I did peer into one or two churches that might have been where Princess Mathaswentha was saved from a loveless marriage by Martin Padway (at least, she was in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, though in the real world she was less fortunate). But really, after a week of concentrated good fellowship with friends from all over the world I was content with peace and quiet.

Venice, of course, was something else. None of the four of us had been there before, though I had barely missed it once when driving from Trieste down along the (then Yugoslavian, now multinational) coast to the Ancona ferry. And Venice itself was a constant delight.

We had pretty much lost any detailed contact with the world we usually lived in, not having any English-language newspaper or TV handy, but more language-gifted friends in Fanano had told us about big trouble in China. Something was going on in Tianenmen Square, the big open space in Beijing usually given over to crowds of young people anxious to try their imperfect English — or their teacher’s — on us so we could help improve their accents. No crowds of happy youngsters were there now, and no tourists. What young people there were were staring down the barrels of Chinese tanks, and the tank captains — we heard when we found an English paper — were said to have their fingers on the triggers.

It was at that point that we ran across a couple of old friends who, like us, had been at the World SF meeting in Fanano and decided to add on a little Adriatic exploration.

Takumi and Sashiko Shibano, from Tokyo, had been doing the Worldcon for years, and once or twice had stayed with us for a day or two before the con. Yang Xiao, from Chengdu in China, was the editor of the very successful Science Fiction World, by far China’s most prestigious sf magazine. Not one of them spoke a single word of Italian, so they had banded together to do their exploration, in spite of the fact that Yang didn’t speak either Japanese or English, either, and the Shibanos had no Chinese. At home in Chengdu, Yang Xiao didn’t need to know languages, having a staff of translators to keep her informed of what was in all those articles, stories and letters, but they were all still in Chengdu, while she was a world away. A clearly courageous human being, Yang had done all sorts of world traveling, with no more English than you can get out of a Chinese-Engish “useful words” booklet.

I admired her pluck, but immediately discovered she had heard nothing about the drama being played out in Tiananmen Square. I began to worry about how to inform her of the problem that looked like it was convulsing her home country.. We all put our minds to it. We succceded, too. Our American team went over the principal stories about Tiananmen Square in the English and Italian papers to clarify any parts that the Shibanos were unsure of. Then either Takumi or Sashiko wrote each story out in Japanese characters. It is a fortunate quality of the two languages that, although the spoken tongues are mutually incomprehensible, the written ones are enough alike that, with some effort, a Chinese reader can make sense of a Japanese story. And Yang Xiao got the news of the dismal encounter that was shaking her homeland up while she was a world away.

Which just goes to show you what a bunch of science-fiction types can do when they put their minds to it.

Admiral of the Little Wooden Navies and Dean of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

When I was eleven or twelve I uncritically, but obsessively, read every scrap of science fiction I could put my hands on. This primarily meant every back-number sf magazine I could buy for a nickel (as against the extortionate 25¢ cover price for current issues on a newsstand) in the second-hand magazine store. One of the first of those, I think, was an early Amazing Stories Quarterly, and its principal content was a novel called A Voice Across the Years.

It was, I must say now — though I didn’t realize it at the time — a quite undistinguished story, although an unusual one in two respects. In the story, a couple of human beings from Earth have somehow or other happened to land on a civilized planet far, far away, where they are welcomed by being given wardrobes of new clothing. The garments fit them perfectly, because each one was custom made by a machine that measured every part of them and then cut and stitched fabric to an exact fit.

I had not seen any such voluminous discussion of science-fictional tailoring, or indeed of any kind of haberdashery, in any other story, and I was fascinated. I am afraid that at the time I may have been suffering from the delusion that every marvelous invention I saw described in any story was probably going to become reality before long — after all, that’s what had happened with radio, the airplane, the submarine and many other marvels, hadn’t it? So I thought it likely that before long Macy’s would have these machines in their boys’ department to make my first machine-created pair of knickers. (Please remember that I was then maybe eleven years old.)

The other unusual thing about the story was its by-line. It was signed “by Fletcher Pratt and I.M. Stephens.” I had never seen a joint byline before. I had never heard of collaboration. Did it mean that two different people had somehow written a single story? And if so, how?

However they did it, it sounded sort of unpleasant to me — certainly not like anything I would ever want to do myself.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt’ »

Robert A. Heinlein:
In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1,
Learning Curve, 1907–1948

By William H. Patterson
(Tor, Hardcover, $29.99).

When I read a biography of someone I’ve known well, there are two things I look for on first inspection. The first is errors of fact, and I’m glad to say that Patterson’s detailed and well researched study seems innocent of any serious quantity of these. The other is more personal. It’s learning new things about the subject’s behavior that you had never guessed, particularly when they impact on yourself. I did find a couple of those in Learning Curve.

I was pretty sure Robert Heinlein regarded me as a good editor — if not, he would never have rewritten some of his stories to my specifications, especially at the pitiful rates I was able to pay. But I hadn’t known until I read it in the book that Robert had been so upset when I left the company that he asked New York friends to find out if I had been unjustly canned, writing, “If he” — that’s me — “got a dirty deal from them and wishes his friends to boycott them, I don’t care to do business with them.” I hadn’t had any idea of such a thing, and I have to say I was touched when I read it in Patterson’s book.

There was one other thing I learned there that I hadn’t suspected, and that was that in letters to his friends Heinlein referred to me as “Freddie.” That was an even bigger surprise. It’s about a year since I first discovered that. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I like it.

* * *

Patterson’s book starts at the very beginning, or maybe a little before the actual beginning, of Robert’s life, by introducing his parent and grandparents. This is of interest, of course, only insofar as it helped to shape Heinlein himself. Actually, by Patterson’s account he was not seriously unlike any other Midwestern kid, growing up in a family with limited amounts of money, and one of the things I most appreciate about Patterson is the briskness with which he moves us through the pages of genealogy. It is when Robert himself successfully seeks to be appointed to the United States Naval Academy that his life begins to diverge from the rest.

Even someone who has never read a word of Heinlein would value Paterson’s book for the way he describes the life of a midshipman. It was a demanding period in Robert’s life, since any upperclassman could demand their attention at any time — and if they were unsatisfactory in any way — or if the upperclassman just happened to feel like it — the punishment was a good beating on the rump with a wooden bar.

Robert did well at the Academy but he didn’t complete the expected trajectory of becoming an actual Navy officer. His eyes were the first to betray him, then other parts of his body (most famously, the ones he joked about as his “asteroids”) . He never got to fight in World War II, but spent the war years in working on an oddball research team based at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and a female naval officer named Virginia Gerstenfeld, who, as everyone well knows, before long became Mrs. Robert A. Heinlein.

One of the questions Patterson’s admirable book did not answer for me was precisely how it happened that Robert so thoroughly switched his affections from Leslyn, who was Wife No. 2, to Ginny, who wound up the series as Wife No. 3 and Last. (I am not deliberately mocking Heinlein’s plurality of marriages; as everyone knows who knows me at all, I am not in a position to do that.)

I confess that I was never particularly fond of Ginny, nor she of me, but as we both were fond of Robert, we maintained courteous relations. But I would like to know more than I do about how Leslyn got replaced with Ginny. True, there’s no doubt that Leslyn was an alcoholic and given to fits of bad behavior. Maybe that’s really all there is to know. But just about all we know of those events is what Ginny tells us. I’d love to hear Leslyn’s side of the story, and I am feeling guilty about that because Leslyn did appeal to me for sympathy, and I, unwilling to get mixed up in a private affair, discouraged her letters until she gave up.

Ah, well. Read the book anyway. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I did.

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’ »

Gertrude and Isaac Asimov

Gertrude and Isaac Asimov. (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

When World War II ended, Isaac Asimov’s stint as a war research scientist came to an end. Then he said good-bye (or at least au revoir to his associate researchers, because he was pretty sure to be seeing at least Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp again) and headed for the normalcy of a return to civilian life.

That, however, was not to be. His draft board had other ideas. His work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had preserved him from being called up as long as he was doing the work. Now he wasn’t doing it any more. He was quickly promoted to become classified 1A in the Selective Service’s eyes, and shortly thereafter promoted again, now becoming Asimov, Pvt Isaac.

This was not a development Isaac had sought. Worse, it soon became a development he couldn’t live with at all, because the Army had a plan for him. With his education and his record of writing about the future, he was a natural to be selected as an observer at some upcoming military tests.

They were not tests Isaac wanted to observe. Indeed, he saw nothing but trouble, bad trouble, if that scenario was followed.

The USA had invented the atomic bomb and used it to speed the end of the war. Now it wanted to set off test bombs under experimental conditions, several of the things, so it could learn as quickly as possible just how to use this ultimate weapon. The higher-ups had scheduled several such tests, far off in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and the plan was that formations of GIs would be present at every firing — to observe and protect, they said, but the suspicious-minded wondered if the tests were also likely to provide useful information about the effects of radiation on healthy young men.

There was also a political problem. The Soviet Union, America’s most potent wartime ally, had with the peace become its deadliest rival. The papers were filling up with lurid stories about Soviet spies lurking everywhere, trying to steal America’s secrets — trying hardest to learn everything that could be learned about the atom bomb and how to make one of their own. And, Private Asimov, in what country did you say you were born?

Private Asimov pointed out that he had warned of this problem to every authority figure he could find who would listen. It took a while before he could find one who was willing to do that, and by then he was well on his way to the test site. But then things improved. Isaac not only was taken off the A-bomb detail, his draft status was reviewed and he was a civilian again.

There was one bad feature. They insisted on flying him back to the States. But Isaac put up with that, confident that if he survived that ordeal he would never have to get in a plane again.

Since, being Jewish, Isaac was not going to be allowed to attend any decent medical school, he had no hope of ever putting the letters M.D. after his name. Next best, he thought, would be a Ph.D., and the discipline that he wanted to get the award in, he decided, was organic chemistry. And while he was working toward that goal there was one other accomplishment he wanted to achieve. He wanted to get married, because Isaac had a girl.

Her name was Gertrude Blugerman. If you picked out the letters D-E-A-R-E-S-T on your telephone keypad in those years she was the person (assuming you were dialing in New York City) who would answer.

I think that tells you an important fact about Isaac right there. Oh, of course it was only dumb luck that gave Isaac’s girl an endearing phone number. That sort of pure chance could have happened to anyone. But if it had happened to almost any other young man, it is likely that neither he nor the girl would ever have known. It takes a certain kind of mind to ring up changes on all the numbers and phrases and facts that come one’s way — the kind of mind that Isaac Asimov was born with, and that made him the writer he was.

All this time, of course, Isaac was writing science fiction, mostly for John Campbell but now and then for others. He had already established the two main currents in his fiction: The positronic robot stories (Why were they positronic? I asked him that once and he said, “Because the positron had just been added to the list of particles and no one knew what it could and couldn’t do.”) and the Foundation series.

So what else can I tell you about Isaac Asimov at this stage? His favorite breakfast was a can of Campbell’s vegetable-beef soup. As far as his general dietary choices were concerned, his family didn’t keep kosher but were not very adventurous in diet. But Isaac liked to try new things when he and I ate out together. Not all experiments were successes, When the two of us lunched one day and discovered the restaurant was offering soft-shell crabs, which neither of us had ever tried, we gave them a shot. Once was enough for me — I didn’t like their slippery feel in my mouth — but Isaac’s verdict was that he didn’t really like them but might give them another chance some time.

(More parts to come, as I write them.)

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