Part 2 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Bester: It’s kind of peculiar, we are finally accepted — the Johnny-come-latelys are now talking about “sci-fi,” which is an abbreviation which I loathe. But what makes me very curious is what the hell people are looking for in science fiction. Predictions of the future, extrapolations of technology, that sort of thing?
I still think science fiction is the poetry of literature, and if you want new ideas and ways of telling a story and new kinds of stories, you go to science fiction, because God knows you can’t find it in ordinary commercial fiction today. Most of the hundreds of science fiction soft-cover books are old-style space opera nonsense to which we pay no attention.
If you want something arresting, read a novel by Fred Pohl, which yesterday won the most distinguished award that science fiction has to offer.
Pohl: The name of the book is Gateway and it won the heaviest damn award I’ve ever had to carry around. [Editor's note: It won the Campbell, Nebula and Locus Awards that year, and — two months later — the Hugo Award as well.]
Bester: Now tell them about the book, because you will be explaining to them, Fred, what I’m talking about, about the freshness of approach, freshness of ideas.
Pohl: The book concerns a man about 20, 50, 100 years from now whose name is Robinette Broadhead and who works in the food mines in Wyoming. Here they dig out the shale rock and squeeze out the oil, and grow single-cell protein on the oil (there’s a British Petroleum patent on this). He happens to hit lucky and get some money and pays his passage to an asteroid, somewhere out in space, called Gateway, where, half a million years ago, some wandering people, creatures, beings of another star left a lot of spaceships around. They still work. There is nobody there, there is no explanation of anything, but there are the spaceships. And if you get into them and push the right buttons they will take you anywhere in the galaxy.
The difficulty is that you don’t know where, because nobody knows how to read their inscriptions. And you don’t know if you will come back and you don’t know what you’ll find. So what you do is you get into it and you pray hard for a while and you push a button and by and by you do or do not emerge on another planet somewhere. And do or do not find something, some artifact, some mineral, some gem, whatever, that will make you rich forever. If you’re lucky you get back. If you’re very lucky you get back rich. Most people don’t get back or don’t find anything. And this is the central story of Gateway, which may or may not be flashingly original but I kind of enjoyed it.
At the same time, there’s a parallel story going chapter by chapter, which is the story of this man’s psychoanalysis. His shrink is a computer programmed to be a psychoanalyst, whose name is Sigfrid von Shrink. He’s my favorite character in the book. And there’s a dialogue between Broadhead and the computer that goes all the way through it.
I will reveal to you the depths of my vanity. I like the book a lot and I’m awfully pleased that it won. I worked hard on it over a long period of time. The thing about the book is, as Alfie said, I didn’t set out in my mind to construct this book.
I began writing different things and throwing half of them away and then writing sections and not being sure where they fitted in. And thinking more about the character and perceiving that these things must be true of him, I put them in. And thinking about what he would do and how he would feel, and changing the book because he developed a life of his own as he went along. Changing the book to make it conform to the realities of what I perceived of him, and after five or six years I had a stack of papers so high, which amounted to 50 or 100 little scenes that I knew contained within them, somewhere, a novel, if I could only find it.
Then — one of the side benefits that are sometimes given to science-fiction writers — I was lecturing on science fiction and they gave me a cruise to six ports in the Caribbean while I did it. And I had pieces of paper strewn all over my stateroom, trying to find out which went in front of which, and the steward kept wanting to come in and clean the room, and I kept saying “No, no, stay away, you’ll destroy seven years of work if you do.”
But I got it sorted out and pieced it together. It was a laborious way of writing a novel and usually I’m much more efficient and linear, but I’m pleased with the way it came out. I have no modesty in this matter.
Bester: Fred’s neglected to point out that he has extrapolated our great American disease, which is that success is the be-all and end-all of life and no matter what you do, if you end up rich and successful, it is worth any risk. This was the point that Fred made in the novel, and which is most pertinent — if anyone knows the career of Richard Nixon, for example.
But as for that tessellated quality of putting it together, this is the way I do it all the time. I put together these various pieces into a giant mosaic and I constantly have pieces of paper saying, “Now this doesn’t go before that, it goes after that.”
“Hey, lady,” I’ll say to my Redhead, “which do you think should go first?” I need to have outside opinions and stuff like that. As you say, it isn’t linear; but I think it develops as we become more mature as writers. We no longer work in the linear style because life is no longer linear.
Pohl: As you said before, we both grew up through the pulps. I don’t know exactly when I became a professional writer, because my first sale was a poem. I wrote it when I was 15, and it was accepted when I was 16 and published when I was 17 and paid for when I was 18. Somewhere in there I became a professional writer, and I’ve been pounding away at the same typewriter keys ever since.
When I first began writing seriously, I carefully schooled myself to put a sheet of white paper, a carbon sheet and a second sheet into the typewriter, type my name and address, begin writing, and when I’d finished I took it all out, put it in an envelope and mailed it to someone, and sometimes they bought it and sometimes not — but enough to keep me going. And I did that for about 10 years, and at the end of those 10 years I realized that I had published 40 or 50 stories and had managed to eat fairly well, at least part of the time. But I had not yet published anything that I was proud of.
I had schooled myself to write linearly and rapidly from the beginning to the end, making it up as I went along, never looking back and never changing. It’s like instant lightning sketches at a beach resort, you can do them fast, you can do them sure, but you can’t do them good. So I decided to trick myself, and ever since then, which is now 30 years of writing, I’ve always done my first drafts on the back of old correspondence and circulars — so there is no way I could submit them that way. So I’ve got to retype them and therefore I make myself rewrite every word before I send them out. And the disease is getting pretty terminal, because now I rewrite four times, five times, six times before it goes out.
Bester: I do that all the time, Fred. I start in longhand — I work in legal pads in longhand.
But I’ve got a story to back you up on what you just said. After five or 10 years of scriptwriting — and I was carrying two or three shows a week at the time — it seemed to me that I was getting very old and very slow. I couldn’t write as many scripts as I had before.
Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 2: Gateway and the Art of Writing’ »