Posts tagged ‘Futurians’

Cyril Begins to Blossom

His Share of Glory by C.M. Kornbluth

When Cyril’s bad luck dumped him into the Infantry just when Hitler caught the American Army with their pants down in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a machine-gunner. What happened with him in that worrisome period before Patton, plus thousands of fresh reserves, kicked Hitler’s troops back into Germany I don’t know, because Cyril refused to talk about it. The end result, though, was that he got two things from that period of service. One was a Bronze Star. The other was a bad case of what they called severe essential hypertension, which was Army talk for heart trouble.

For a time after the war Cyril dealt with that situation by ignoring it. At some point he had married Mary G. Byers, the Ohio femmefan he had smuggled into New York City over the efforts of the uncle who, as her guardian, had done everything he could to prevent it. When Cyril’s draft number came up (I believe from things Cyril said), they were married.

While Cyril was serving in Europe, Mary was (again, I understand) alone, and not doing well. I believe that was when her drinking problem first surfaced; but when Cyril came home, he entered the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and, at least for a time, things went well for both of them, especially after he took on a part-time job working for the newswire service, Transradio Press.

That job he got by invitation of our mutual old Futurian friend, Dick Wilson, who got there a little earlier than Cyril and had already become head of Transradio’s Chicago Bureau. (I must write something about Transradio some time, because it loved hiring Futurians, including, occasionally, me. But not now.)

Cyril had stopped by New York before moving on to Chicago, and he and I had kept in contact. I was then operating the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, helping Dirk to make it a career (his own war injuries having made it impossible for him to hold a normal job.) When Cyril began writing, and selling, an occasional postwar sf story again, I coaxed him to do more.

He ultimately gave in, quit Transradio (and quit the university too) and moved back east. I think, again from things Cyril said, that part of the reason for leaving Chicago was because Mary was involved in some drinking there. I know (from Mary herself) that Cyril tried really hard to help her quit, including some pretty harsh measures.

He and Mary set up housekeeping near where I was living with my family in Red Bank, New Jersey. For the next few years Cyril-the-writer was not only vastly productive but getting better and better at it, almost by the day. That’s when he was producing such winners as “The Luckiest Man in Denv,” “The Silly Season,” “The Little Black Bag” and many more. Cyril had a nearly in-born gift for graceful writing and excellent spot-on characterization. His only real weakness was in plotting. By then he had taught himself — maybe with a little help from those Futurian writing orgies — plot structure for short stories and, soon thereafter, novelettes and novellas. Some of his work from that period I would match against almost anybody’s best stories ever, including “The Marching Morons,” “Two Dooms” and a good many others. (The intelligent folks at NESFA have put all those stories in a single volume, entitled His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth.) None of them won any Hugos or Nebulae. The reason was just some of Cyril’s bad luck. The awards hadn’t been invented yet.

Apart from the writing, Cyril’s life was unusually ordinary — that is to say, mostly quite apparently happy in those years. He and Mary shared many interests, not least the two sons, John and David, that Mary gave him in those years. Fatherhood, I must say, revealed a side of Cyril that I had not suspected to exist. He was an archetypal proud papa, he worried seriously when John developed some problems that none of their doctors seemed able to cope with (but which, apparently, the boy ultimately outgrew). From outside, even a quite close outside, the ultimate cynic seemed to have transmuted himself into a perfectly normal young married.

There was one small puzzle. One time when he and I were in my car, on the way to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, our conversation got much more than usually personal. And when, leaping from earlier remarks between us, I asked Cyril what he would most like to change about himself, he clenched his teeth and, “I wish I were less cruel.”

I didn’t ask him any questions about that remark, but I did give it a lot of thought for a long time.

More coming along as soon as I find time to write it.

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On His Way to Being the Very Best Writer I Have Ever Known

C.M. Kornbluth

C.M. Kornbluth

I think Cyril Kornbluth knew he wanted to be a writer at about the same age as most of the rest of us, which was generally early to middle teens. What he didn’t know was what kind of writer he wanted to be. His goal wasn’t, at first, science fiction. Cyril was a fan, like all of us, but what writing he did at first was mostly poetry, some of it plaintively sexual, like the scant few lines I remember of one of his early ones: “How long, my love, shall I behold this wall / Between our gardens, yours the rose, and mine / The shrinking lily.”

He possessed a manual of poetry, a book purporting to describe every poetic form ever invented and written, I think, by one of his high-school teachers. He and I tried writing as many different forms as we could, including a pair of matched sonnets, both Shakespearean and Petrarchan, but we gave up after an over-ambitious attempt at a chant royal. At that time, I think, Cyril was maybe 14, and I three or four years older. Then he began creating tiny storiettes, like “The Rocket of 1955.”

When I, closely followed by Don Wollheim, and Bob Lowndes, became a professional sf editor, most of the Futurian writing neos began concentrating on trying to write at least marginally publishable sf stories for these unexpectedly friendly new markets. Cyril went with the flow. Most of his work for the next few years was science fiction, some of it in collaboration with me. The stories were all pretty mediocre, or worse, but they mostly did see print in one or another of our friendly prozines. None of the actual stories get more than a C-minus, though some of Cyril’s 250-worders survive.

But that situation didn’t last long. The Second World War revised everyone’s plans, especially for Cyril, who had a woefully low draft number. He was nabbed early by the Army, but he caught a break. He had worked briefly in a machine shop, and thus had experience of operating metal-working machinery. This was just what the artillery were combing the inductees for, men who would repair the big guns, in a place far enough from the front lines that the enemy couldn’t swoop down and carry off those precious machines. They snapped Cyril right up. It was the kind of no-risk and cushy job that several million GIs would have given their left testicle for, but in 1944 what looked like a better deal came along..

Higher-ups in the Army command circles were calculating that the war was likely to last for years yet. If so there might be a serious shortage of college-educated candidates to be trained as commissioned officers. They didn’t want to run short on this valuable resource, so they quickly created what they called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. Under it, GIs lucky enough to be accepted would be relieved of all duties except going to college.

This sounded like a dream of Heaven to most GIs, not least because the system’s unrelenting drafts of young males had left most colleges’ student bodies heavily weighted with an excess of young single women. Cyril applied, was quickly accepted and went happily back to school, this time in uniform — until some person higher still in command circles noticed that both the Germans and the Japanese were losing most of their recent battles, and the war might end sooner than they had calculated. So ASTP was peremptorily abolished and all its students, including Cyril, transferred into the Infantry.

For this branch of service the Army had great and unanticipated need, since Hitler had just managed to launch a totally unexpected full-fledged attack on the troops in the Ardennes forest. And that’s where Cyril landed.

See Part 3, “Cyril Begins to Blossom,” real soon now.

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From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

A congratulations note from Mark Olson reminds me of what I didn’t think of on my own, namely that we just passed the 75th anniversary of that earth-shaking event, the very first science-fiction convention ever, held when a handful of us New Yorkers dared the rail trip to Philadelphia to join with a handful of Philly fans and convene.

Three-quarters of a century! My, how time flies when you’re having fun!

Jack Robins

Jack Robins

Although he was less avid a writer than most of the rest of the Futurians, Jack Robins (or Rubinson) once wrote a play: “The Ivory Power,” now unfortunately long lost. It wasn’t a normal “story” play. It was more like one of those WPA docudramas that had become popular in the early ’30s, only it didn’t concern sharecroppers. It was actually about us Futurians and it was a sort of idealization of what we might have been doing in a political sense if we had done anything more than talk.

Looked at in one way, it was actually a kind of a reproach to all of us. Looked at in another it showed what real feelings we had, and might yet give voice to. It was actually quite moving.

Jack earned a doctorate and went on to a long and successful career as a research chemist. Only one other of those clever, fast-talking Futurians attained the Ph.D., Isaac Asimov. Jack’s was a much more explosive career, though: He spent 25 years working in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, for the Atlas Powder Co. — makers of TNT.

Jack is one of the three surviving Futurians, the others being David A. Kyle and your host, Frederik Pohl. Regard nothing as settled, though. We’re all ridiculously old, and one or all of us could go any drafty Thursday.

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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’ »

Illustration by Hannes Bok.

I commissioned this illustration from Hannes Bok after seeing his work in 1939.

The Futurians had any number of members who won awards for writing, but we only had one who earned his Hugo by the beauty of the things he drew and painted. That was Wayne Woodard, as his parents called him when he was born in 1914, though he became better known to fans and to art-lovers all over the world by the name he chose for himself when he needed something to sign to his artwork, Hannes Bok.

Most magazine illustrators get their start with the magazines by visiting their offices, a bunch of samples under their arms, and showing them to whoever on the masthead would look at them until somebody showed up who liked the samples well enough to use a few in their magazines. That wasn’t possible for Hannes. He was a West Coast kid and he had no possibility of affording a bus ticket to where the magazines were. But he had a stroke of luck.

When he moved to Los Angeles — which he did early in 1939 — he met a kid fan named Raymond Bradbury — “Ray,” for short — who was almost as badly off as himself. The kid wasn’t aiming to be an artist; his dream was to become a writer, but he was as unsuccessful at it as Hannes was with his art. However. he belonged to a group of people who, like Hannes, were interested in science fiction and fantasy. The group, the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, would later become the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. They met in an upper room of a place called Clifton’s Cafeteria.

LASFS was a welcoming group for Hannes. Among the people he met there was a writer named Emil Petaja, who did get some of his stories published in the prozines and became Hannes’ best and lifelong friend. Another was a fan, or actually a kind of superfan who knew everybody involved in making of sf films, named Forrest J (No Period!) Ackerman.

The big news in science fiction, at least as far as the LASFS was concerned, was what was going to happen in New York that summer. The city was planning a huge show called the New York World’s Fair, and the fans in New York had uncharacteristically abandoned their blood feuding to work together to create a wonderful new project, a World Science Fiction Convention. It was the chance of a lifetime, they reasoned, because they could take advantage of all the foreigners who would come to New York for the Fair. Some fraction of them, they calculated, were sure to be fans who would be likely to stay for this Worldcon.

It was every last LASFS member’s dearest dream to be among them, but for most they knew it was only a dream. The Depression was dwindling fast, but its effects were not altogether over. And LASFS was made up mainly of teenagers with few resources to draw on.

But one resource was Forry Ackerman. A small inheritance had left him with money in the bank, so he was going to the Worldcon himself. So was a female fan named Myrtle R. Jones — or, as you would say it in Forry’s favorite second tongue, Esperanto, “Morojo.” And, when Forry had had a couple weeks of exposure to the woebegone expression on Ray’s face, he figured out a way of solving one problem. He could lend Ray Bradbury the bus fare. So he tapped the bank account a little harder, and pulled out enough cash to lend Ray Bradbury the price of a ticket to New York.

That was not a risk-free investment on Forry’s part, because the only source of income Ray had to pay him back was what he earned as a newsboy, selling papers on the streets of Los Angeles. But it wasn’t just a kindness to Ray. To Forry’s generosity, Ray added on a kindness of his own. He was going to do his best to meet every sf editor in the world, or at least every one who made it to the Worldcon, and while he was introducing them to himself there was no reason — assuming Hannes would lend him some samples to take along — why he couldn’t introduce them to the work of Hannes Bok at the same time.

And that is how it all fell out. Ray wheeled and dealt with such good effect at the Worldcon that, if I’m not mistaken, some of Hannes’ samples were actually bought and published by an editor, and several other editors asked him to do work for them.

One of this latter class was me. I met Ray Bradbury, and heard of Hannes Bok, for the first time at (or, more accurately, near — but that’s another story) the Worldcon, and shortly thereafter commissioned a set of illustrations for a story of my own from Hannes. (I still have one of the drawings on the wall of my office at home.)

That expedition worked so well for Hannes that it gave him the funds to make the move to New York, and that too worked pretty well. Well enough, at least, for Hannes to enjoy some years of relative affluence — affluence enough, that is, for him to pay the rent and have enough left over to eat regular meals.

I think he must have been a pleasant person to be around then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around him for most of that period, because I had received an employment offer — the kind of an offer that you just can’t say no to — from the Armed Services of the United States of America.

Watch for Part 2, covering how all this worked out, coming soon — provided “soon” is when I write it.

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