Posts tagged ‘The Early Pohl’

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at the Queens Science Fiction League, 1948.

Will Sykora, along with James Taurasi and Sam Moskowitz, were the leaders of the anti-Futurian wing of New York fandom. They had way more members than we, so on votes they had no trouble cutting us off from even things that originally had been our ideas, like the 1939 Worldcon No. 1.

Willy Ley in his natal Germany was a member of the circle of early German rocket enthusiasts, including Wernher von Braun, which were largely responsible for encouraging the research which produced the V1 and V2 flying bombs. By then, however, Ley, a confirmed anti-Nazi, had escaped to America where he became a writer on that and related subjects.

Sykora had no particular connection with Ley. They just both happened to sit at the same table, and there was somebody with a camera.

* * *

The Early PohlThe Early Asimov

The funny story about The Early Pohl:

It was the idea of some of the Doubleday editors to publish a book of the first (and generally the worst) stories ever published by a number of sf writers, including Isaac Asimov and me. As it happened, two of Isaac’s earliest stories had been collaborations with me, and he wanted to include them in The Early Asimov. So to pay me for my contribution to the work, I received a 5-percent share of the income from Isaac’s book.

The funny, if embarrassing to me, part of it:

We kept on getting royalties on these books for some time, and in every royalty period the money from my 5-percent share of Isaac’s royalties was always more than my 100-percent share of my own.

* * *

By the way and P.S:

Did you notice how trivial were the dreadful effects of technology that I was trying to worry the reader with? From jet planes, I warned of sonic boom; from cars, the corroding of stonework.

How ignorant we were even when we thought we were cutting-edge smart!

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Wonder Stories, April 1933

I don’t know what kind of a writer I would have been if I hadn’t met Dirk Wylie and, through him and with him, the whole world of science-fiction fandom. Much the same, I imagine. I almost certainly would have been some kind of a writer — I’m hardly fit for anything else. And I had been trying to write sf at least a year before I met Dirk, in idle moments in classes in the eighth grade. But it would have taken a lot longer.

I owe a lot to fandom. From Don Wollheim, John Michel, Doc Lowndes — and later from Cyril Kornbluth, Dick Wilson, Isaac Asimov and others — I learned something about what they were learning about writing; we all showed each other our stories, when we weren’t actually collaborating on them. In the fan mags, I acquired the skills necessary to prepare something for public viewing — and the courage to permit it.

What I am not as sure of is whether all the things we learned then were worth learning.

Science fiction was purely a pulp category in those days. Sometimes the emphasis was on gadgetry, sometimes on blood-and-thunder adventure; when it was best, the high spots were vistas of new worlds and new kinds of life. In no case was it on belles-lettres, nor was it a place to look for fresh insights into the human condition. What we learned from each other and from the world around us was the hardware of writing. Narrative hooks. Time-pressure to make a story move. Character tags — not characterization, but oddities, quirks, bits of business to make a person in a story not alive but identifiable. So I learned how to invent ray-guns and how to make a story march, but it was not for a long, long time that I began to try to learn how to use a story to say something that needed saying.

In fact, when I look back at the science-fiction magazines of the twenties and the early thirties, the ones that hooked me on sf, I sometimes wonder just what it was we all found in them to shape our lives around.

I think there were two things. One is that science fiction was a way out of a bad place; the other, that it was a window on a better one.

The world really was in bad trouble. Money trouble. The Great Depression was not just a few million people out of work or a thousand banks gone shaky. It was fear. And it was worldwide. Somehow or other the economic life of the human race had got itself off the tracks. No one was quite sure it would get straight again. No one could be sure that his own life was not going to be disastrously changed, and science fiction offered an escape from all that.

The other thing about the world was that technology had just begun to make itself a part of everyone’s life. Every day there were new miracles. Immense new buildings. Giant airships. Huge ocean liners. Man flew across the Atlantic and circled the South Pole. Cars went faster, tunnels went deeper, the Empire State Building stretched a fifth of a mile into the sky, radio brought you the voice of a singer a continent away.

It was clear that behind all this growth and acceleration something was happening, and that it would not stop happening with huge Zeppelins and giant buildings but would go on and on. What science fiction was about was the going on. The next step, and the step after that. Not just radio, but television. Not just the conquest of the air, but the conquest of space.

Of course, not even science fiction was telling us much about the price tag on progress. It told us about the future of the automobile; it didn’t tell us that sulphur-dioxide pollution would crumble the stone in the buildings that lined the streets. It told us about high-speed aircraft, but not about sonic boom; about atomic energy, but not about fallout; about organ transplants and life prolongation, but not about the dreary agony of overpopulation.

Nobody else was telling us about these things, either. A decade or two later science fiction picked up on the gloom behind the glamour very quickly, and maybe too completely. But in those early days we were as innocent as physicists, popes and presidents. We saw only the promise, not the threat.

And truthfully we weren’t looking for threats. We were looking for beauty and challenge. When we couldn’t find them on Earth, we looked outside for prettier, more satisfying places. Mars. Venus. The made-up planets of invented stars somewhere off in the middle of the galaxy, or in galaxies farther away still.

I think we all believed as an article of faith that there were other intelligent races in the universe than our own, plenty of them. (I still believe it! What puzzles me is why we haven’t seen any of them as visitors. I wish I could swallow the flying-saucer stories — I can’t; the evidence just isn’t good. But the absence of hard facts hasn’t shaken my faith that Osnomians and Fenachrone are out there somewhere.) If polled, I am sure we would have agreed that wherever there’s a planet, there’s life — or used to be, or will be.

Now, alas, we know that the odds are not as good as we had hoped, especially for our own solar system. The local real estate is pretty low quality. Mercury is too hot and has too little air; Venus is too hot and has too much, and poisonous at that. Mars is still a possibility, but not by any means a good one — and what else is there? But in the mid-thirties we didn’t know as much as we do now. The big telescopes hadn’t yet been completed, and of course no spaceship had yet brought a TV camera to Mars or the Moon.

But we believed.

Stay tuned. . . .

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The Brooklyn Science Fiction League met in the basement of its chairman, George Gordon Clark. He was an energetic fellow. When Wonder Stories announced the formation of the SFL Clark did not waste time, he sent in his coupon at once and consequently became Member No. 1. When the SFL announced it was willing to charter local chapters, he acted instantly again, and so the BSFL was Chapter No. 1, too.

We outgrew Clark’s basement pretty quickly; there was only room for about four of us, in with his collection of sf magazines. We moved to a classroom in a nearby public school. What I mostly remember about those meetings is surprise that I couldn’t fit into the grammar-school desks anymore — after all, it was only a couple of years since I had been occupying desks just like them every school day. I remember we talked a lot about how to interpret Robert’s Rules of Order and spent quite a lot of time reading minutes of the previous meeting. If anything else substantive took place, I have forgotten it entirely.

But, ah, the Meeting After the Meeting! That was the fun part. That was when we would adjourn to the nearest open soda fountain, order our sodas and sundaes and sit around until they threw us out, talking about science fiction.

It was always a soda fountain. Not always the same one; over the years we fans must have staked out and claimed dozens of them, all over the city. But we were addicted to ice cream concoctions, so much so that a few years later, in a different borough of the city, after the meetings of a different club, we finally designed our own sundae, which we called the Science Fiction Special, and persuaded the proprietor of the store to put it on his menu.

We were a young bunch, as you can see. Except for Clark, who must have been in his early twenties, the old man of the group was Donald Wollheim, pushing nineteen. John B. Michel came with Donald; and a little later, down from Connecticut, Robert W. Lowndes; the four of us made a quadrumvirate that held together for — oh, forever, it seems like — it must have been all of three or four years, during which time we started clubs and dispersed them, published fan magazines, fought all comers for supremacy in fandom and wound up battling among ourselves.

The fan feud is not quite coeval with fandom itself, but it comes close. None of the clubs seemed to live very long. The BSFL held out for a year, then we moved on to the East New York Science Fiction League, a rival chapter of the parent organization, which seceded and renamed itself the Independent League for Science Fiction. That kept us engaged for another year, then it was the turn of the International Scientific Association (also known as the International Cosmos-Science Club). The ISA was not particularly scientific, and it certainly wasn’t all that international; we met in the basement of Will Sykora’s house in Astoria, Queens. (The ENYSFL-ILSF had met in a basement, too, the one belonging to its chairman, Harold W. Kirshenblith. I do not know what science-fiction fandom would have done in, say, Florida, where the houses didn’t have basements.)

It didn’t much matter what the name of the club was, or where we met. We did about the same things. We held meetings once a month, mostly devoted to arguments over whether a motion to adjourn took precedence over a point of personal privilege. We got together between times to publish mimeographed magazines, where we practiced our fledgling talents — for writing, and also for invective.

The fan mags (now they are called “fanzines,” but the term hadn’t been coined then) were sometimes club efforts, sometimes individual. I managed to wind up as editor of the club mags a lot of the time, but that wasn’t enough; I published some of my own. The one I liked best was a minimal eight-page mimeographed job measuring 4 ¼ by 5 ½ inches — a standard 8 ½-by-11-inch mimeo sheet folded twice — called Mind of Man. Since it was my own, I could publish anything I liked in it. What I liked best to publish was my own poetry, which at that time was highly sense-free, influenced in equal parts by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and some of the crazier exhibits in transition.

To be continued. . . .

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Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1948.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1948.


This arrived without warning from my old friend Andrew Porter, once the editor and publisher of Algol/Science Fiction Chronicle, the only real competition Locus ever had. Andy didn’t say why he sent it, but I guess he just thought I would like to see it again — it’s a part of a chapter taken from a book of mine called The Early Pohl that I haven’t looked at in years. Well, I did get a kick out of some of it (although other parts did just repeat things I’ve written here and elsewhere). Considering how many said that you had enjoyed the chapter I inadvertently reprinted from The Way the Future Was, some of you might like this, too, so I’m going to take a chance and reprint this as well. (Having cut out much, though probably not all, of the stuff that already was in the earlier piece.)

The title of the piece is Andy’s. (It refers to the fact that if you wanted to start an sf club in New York in the ’30s, it helped to have a basement that you could hold the club’s meetings in.) It was also Andy’s decision to include a picture of Will Sykora and Willy Ley at the beginning, although only Sykora has anything at all to do with the piece, and then not much. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. As afterwords I’ll attach a little bit about who they are, and I’ll also tell you a funny, if a bit embarrassing to me, story about The Early Pohl, the book this piece came from.

From the book The Early Pohl, copyright ©1976 by Frederik Pohl. (Abridged.)

In the winter of 1933, when I was just turned thirteen, I discovered three new truths.

The first truth was that the world was in a hell of a mess. The second was that I really was not going to spend my life being a chemical engineer, no matter what I had told my guidance counselor at Brooklyn Technical High School. And the third was that in my conversion to science fiction as a way of life I Was Not Alone.

All of these new discoveries were important to me, and in a way they were all related. I had just started the second semester of my freshman year at Brooklyn Tech. It was a cold, grimy winter in the deepest depths of the Great Depression. There was not much joy to be found. Men were selling apples in the streets. The unemployed stood in bread lines and prayed for snow — that meant there would be work shoveling it off the sidewalks. Roosevelt had just been elected President but hadn’t yet taken office — Inauguration Day, still geared to the stagecoach schedules of 1789, had not yet been moved up from March 4. Banks were going broke.

There was not much money around, but on the other hand you didn’t need a lot. Subway fare was a nickel. So was a hot dog at Nedick’s, which was enough for a schoolboy’s lunch. You could go to the movies for a dime or, sometimes, for a can of soup to be donated to the hungry.

Brooklyn Tech was an honor school, which is possibly why I decided to go to it in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I regret to say that as a kid I was always something of an intellectual snob. (I do not wish to discuss what I am now.) Tech had been born in an ancient factory building, next to the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge in the grimiest part of Brooklyn’s industrial riverside district. It had outgrown that and was now spread around a clutch of decrepit ex-grammar schools in the same area. We commuted from building to building, class to class.

I found myself walking from my Mechanical Drawing class in P.S. No. 5 to my Forge and Foundry class in the main building in the company of a tall, skinny kid named Joseph Harold Dockweiler. Along about the third time we crossed Flatbush Avenue together I discovered that we had something of great urgency in common. He, too, was a Science-Fiction Fan, Third Degree. That is, he didn’t merely read the stuff, or even stop at collecting back issues and searching the secondhand bookstores for overlooked works. He, like me, had the firm intention of writing it someday.

Six or seven years later Joseph Harold Dockweiler renamed himself Dirk Wylie. Later still, he and I went partners in a literary agency and later, but tragically not very much later, he died, at the appalling age of twenty-eight, of the aftereffects of his service in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Dirk was the first person I had found like myself. Having learned that we were not unique, we contemplated the possibility of finding still others who would be able and anxious to compare the merits of Amazing vs. Wonder Stories and discuss the galaxy-ranging glamour of E.E. Smith’s Skylark stories. In a word, we went looking for science-fiction fandom.

The bad part of that was that fandom did not yet quite exist.

The good part was that it was just about to be born, when Wonder Stories started a circulation-boosting correspondence club called the Science Fiction League. We joined instanter, and began attending club meetings as soon as a local chapter was formed, where we met others like ourselves.

More to come. . . .

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