Posts tagged ‘Publishing’

Rubik"s Cube

He was English, the fellow in the lobby. He had come from London the day before to see some kindred enlightened souls in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now he was on his way to certain other centers of adepts before reaching the Grand Canyon focal point of the Harmonic Convergence. (Not, thank God, on my flight.)

This flake was the kind I like least. He had learned every buzzword there was in every discipline known to man — his conversation was full of Descartes and expert systems and quarks — and had managed not to understand any of them. And when I managed to point out to him, for example, that “Cogito ergo sum” did not imply the existence of a Divine Being, he responded every time by shifting the universe of discourse to another subject, from molecular biology to Rubik’s Cube. (Lots of people, he told me loftily, could solve Rubik’s Cube; there was nothing remarkable in that. But when you had evolved as far as he had you could do it in your head. Actually, that sounded like a pretty impressive feat to me. But when I asked him if he could then take a real cube and quickly match up all the colors so other people could see, he looked at me with pity. Of course he could do that. But he would never bother. It would simply be too boring to him.)

There was another odd thing about him. I had noticed he was wearing earphones. In those pre-iPod days, I assumed it was some kind of industrial-strength hearing aid. It wasn’t. After a while I saw that he kept fumbling with some sort of gadget in a pocket, and discovered that he was taping everything we said. But before I could find out why he was doing that my transportation arrived, and I was out of there.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. I am not about to believe that when the ancient Mayans devised their calendar they were somehow able to foretell that a hot, wet Sunday in August would be the turning point for mankind. (If they were so smart, why did they let Cortes wipe them out?) I think the whole thing is pretty blackly, depressingly comical.

I also think it’s sad, though, because, my God, here are all those people who believe this nonsense, What’s more, they act on it. According to the papers some hundreds of thousands of people took anywhere from a few hours to a couple of weeks out of their lives simply to chant and relate to each and go, “ooooom.”

And if it happened again today, they’d do it again.

These aren’t bad people. They don’t blow up abortion clinics or sell handguns to teenage gangs. They don’t even put “Sarah Palin for President” bumper stickers on their cars; a lot of them don’t even drive cars, because they don’t want to add to the burden of carcinogens and acid rain.

All they want is to make the world peaceful, loving and as nearly stress-free as a human world can get and, gosh, I’m for all those things, too.

Even the airhead and the Brit, although their grasp on reality was tenuous, seemed sincere in saying that they wished no human being any possible harm at all, only the best of all that’s possible for everyone in the world. And if you add to them the Scientologists and the ests, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the transcendental meditators — all the people, in the aggregate the many millions of people, whose deepest desire is to clean up the mess in their own heads and then go on to help others to do the same — what a dedicated work force we are allowing to piddle away its energies on fantasies!

Just imagine what it would be like if each one of them would, say, expend all that energy on some worthwhile social project (by which, of course, I mean one I approve of) — for instance, teaching remedial English to American high-school graduating classes, so that the kids would learn how to spell, punctuate and parse and my wife wouldn’t spend her time swearing to herself as she corrects their freshman compositions. Illiteracy would disappear overnight.

And we’re letting them go to waste.

Do you see what I mean about reality being less plausible than science fiction? None of us would dare make up a race as lunacy-prone as Genus homo for a science-fiction story. No editor would buy it. No reader would believe it.

The Harmonic Convergence wasn’t the only thing of interest in that summer’s Chernobyl. book tour.

Continue reading ‘Through the Harmonic Convergence, Part 3’ »

chernobyl

A book tour is wearing enough all by itself. I didn’t need any extra aggravation.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid it. I could tell something was up right away. It wasn’t only that the famous Harmonic Convergence of 1987 converged with my book tour for Chernobyl.

My very first radio show of the tour was on a nighttime program on WGN in Chicago, which also broadcasts the Cubs games. Sure enough, that night the Cubs and the Phillies tied it up in the eighth and went into extra innings. The Cubs managed to lose it in the thirteenth, all right, but by then the airtime for the show was long gone by. So I sat in the studio for a few boring hours and then went home. We never did get on that night.

Then we took to the road, and it was Wednesday, Washington; Thursday, Detroit; Friday, Cleveland — and Saturday, still Cleveland, because the Harmonic Convergence was nigh. It caused all its thunderclouds to converge right over O’Hare airport (so all flights were canceled and I spent the night in a Cleveland Holiday Inn). Then it dumped all the moisture out of those clouds right on my house, a dozen miles from O’Hare (so some books and papers that were stored low-down in my basement were rebound in slime). Nine and a half inches of rain in twelve hours.

It was the worst rainstorm in the history of Chicago, and it was all my own fault, of course. I didn’t remember to say, “ooooom.”

Nor was that the worst of it.

See, I live a pretty sheltered life. I spend most of my time either sitting before the keyboard in my office or in the company of my peers at science-fiction cons. So, although I’ve met a lot of pretty weird people (well, didn’t I just say that?), until this tour I actually hadn’t reckoned on the number of loopies going around in what is, for some reason, called the “normal” world. Every city I visited turned up somebody — my airhead driver-escort in one place, a guy who buttonholed me at the hotel registration desk in another — who was not only certain that the Age of Something was upon us because of the Harmonic Convergence, but could not be stopped from telling me about it.

I don’t like to get into conversations of that kind. The principal reason is that I’m tenderhearted; I don’t like to be a killjoy. It gives me no pleasure to try to convince a transcendental metaphysics addict that astrology is a fraud; Uri Geller is a faker; there were no Ancient Astronauts and every single flying-saucer story I have been able to investigate (which adds up to a lot of them, over the years) has turned out to be a mistake, a delusion or a plain damn lie.

But I don’t have any moral objections to someone else’s beliefs. If it gives them pleasure to have their horoscopes, tarot cards or palms read, why should I object?

So I dislike arguing any subject with a True Believer, but what I dislike even more is sitting silent while I am told that unless I believe in some preposterous fantasy I have doomed my hopes of achieving the Age of Enlightenment, or my aura, or my soul. Probably I should appreciate their concern for my welfare, but the fact is that I don’t.

So after the first few mad dashes from radio station to newspaper office in the company of my temporary in-house guru, I stopped trying to change the subject. I took the bit in my teeth and did my best to explain to the airhead that, see, there are only a certain number of long-distance forces that can allow an extraterrestrial body to influence anything on our planet — electromagnetic and gravitational just about wraps it up — and, really, neither one of them has anything to do with whether or not people on Earth start thinking pure thoughts.

This was a mistake. She was a tender-hearted soul, too. She could not bear to see me lost through all eternity because of my pitiful ignorance, and so all the rest of that long day, until finally she let me out at the airport and my ears began to stop throbbing, I heard why the Grand Canyon, Mount Shasta and the corner of 83d Street and Central Park West in New York were “power points” for the universal energies, and how, if I had any sense at all, I would change my ticket and head for the “planetary Woodstock” at one of them right away.

I argued for a while. Then, when the intensity of her convictions led her to run a red light in heavy traffic, I finally shut up and just let her talk.

Honestly, that was one painful day.

She was the worst, if for no other reason than simply because I had no way of getting away from her until it was time for my flight. She wasn’t the only one, though. Fortunately, most of the other harmonicists I ran into were of the tolerable kind who are at least willing to give up about it when I said I’m wasn’t interested.

Not the chap in the hotel lobby.

 
To be continued.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Science Fiction Chronicle in 1988.
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  • Peddling Books Through the Harmonic Convergence, Part 1, Part 3
Chernobyl by Frederik Pohl

 

In 1987, I spent some weeks pushing my (then) new book, Chernobyl. It was an unusual tour mdash; only six states, but a total of four countries mdash; and even more hectic than most of its kind, partly because some of it took place in and around the famous Harmonic Convergence that year.

I’ve said from time to time that the main difference between science fiction, which is supposed to depict things which might actually happen, and reality, which is the sum of the things that do happen, is that reality is a lot less plausible than the author of even the trashiest imaginable science-fiction story would ever dare. I always like it when something I’ve said turns out to be true, so let’s take a look at that implausibility, the 16th of August of ’87, when six hundred thousand people are said to have saved the world by humming in unison.

Let’s start a little way back.

A decade or so before that, a more than ordinarily fuzzy-brained motion-picture producer got hold of a 1974 book called The Jupiter Effect. It went to his head. He decided that he wanted to make it as a feature film. Then, thinking creatively, he realized the book didn’t have any actual story in it that could be filmed, so he decided that he wanted a novel written from which the film could be adapted.

Then, for my sins, they came after me to write the novel.

The thesis of the “Jupiter Effect” was that on a date in the early summer of 1979, all the major planets would be in the same general direction from the Sun. The book said that this could really ruin your day, because the combined gravitational attraction of all those lopsided planets would disturb the core of the Sun. That would somehow accelerate its rate of nuclear fusion and so increase the Sun’s radiation. Then all hell would break loose on the Earth. Among other things, friction between the heated atmosphere and all those mountain tops in the Rockies and Cascades would trigger earthquakes.

As a result, the book said, Southern California would fall into the sea.

(I hope you’re paying enough attention to understand that I’m not describing the plot of a science-fiction story. This was supposed to be real. This interesting prediction didn’t come from somebody’s chance encounter with an alien saucerer from the planet Clarion, but from the work of a couple of — otherwise — pretty reliable physicists.)

So I went and took my meeting, as they say, with the prospective producers and publishers. They explained all this scientific stuff to me, and I knew at once what I had to do. (I have my standards, after all.) I said, “No way, José.”

I said the whole thing was preposterous and definitely was not going to happen; and besides, if they wanted to film that book, the way to do it was to buy the film rights from the authors of the book, and then hire a script writer get to work on a scenario and, above all, leave me alone.

I thought that would end it.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really understand how this particularly nutty idea had got even that far. Still, I was wholly confident that at some point someone in the producing organization would come to his senses. When this happened they would surely realize, a) that they couldn’t possibly get a film written, cast, produced, cut and released in time for the alleged drowning of Los Angeles and, b) it was a lousy idea anyway. I thought that if I just said no that might end the matter right then. Or, anyway, if it didn’t, at least I’d be out of it.

In the second part of that I was wrong. They kept coming at me.

Continue reading ‘Peddling Books Through the Harmonic Convergence’ »

The Space Merchants, 21st Century Edition

 

In 2011, Fred revised The Space Merchants, his classic collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. The most notable changes in the 21st Century Edition were the replacement of defunct brand names with more contemporary ones, and a few tweaks to make the science more accurate.

Not everybody was pleased with the update, but since earlier editions had been out of print for some time, the availability of new copies is a boon. Alas, this classic has not been released in an electronic edition, and we hope those of you who’d like to have it in your e-reader libraries will importune the publishers to make it so.

We thought Fred’s fans might like to see a few of the reviews of the latest edition:

  • “The novel is full of fantastic plot twists and adopts an irreverent attitude to everything from the things we eat to the power of the president. Its wry take on the role of media in shaping popular culture makes it a dazzling proto-Pop novel.” —Doug Cube, Cubic Muse.

  • “At the end of the day, the book can’t help but retain its quality as a cautionary glimpse into the future from a little over a half-century ago. . . . Science-fiction fans who somehow missed reading THE SPACE MERCHANTS should definitely get this new edition. The rest of us can retire our dogged-ear paperback copies and enjoy reading it again in this sturdier, comfortable format.” —Alan Cranis, Bookgasm.

  • “In 1953, Pohl and Kornbluth (1923–1958) published this wry tale of a future run by corporations, a groundbreaking narrative in its time.” — Publishers Weekly.

  • “The best science fiction novel about Madison Ave you’ll ever read. . . . Now out in a ‘Revised 21st Century Edition,’ The Space Merchants is quite literally Mad Men in space. It’s also a reminder that this book should take its place among the great literary satires of the twentieth century.” —Annalee Newitz, io9.

Have you read both versions? What did you think?

The blog team

 
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The Space Merchants, 21st Century Edition

 

See, the liberating thought that came to me one night was, “Hey, Fred! All those people you and Cyril had so much pleasure making fun of, they’re still around — only worse than ever — and they still need to have somebody point out how contemptible their aspirations are and how wretched they would make our lives if they could.”

Time for a new edition! Some of the brand names had lost their relevance — how many people own a Kelvinator or drive a Nash these days? — but it was an easy chore to replace those names with more contemporary ones.

The one thing that would have made the whole job easier, and a lot more fun, was no longer with us. That was the presence of Cyril Kornbluth himself, eternally graceful in the use of words and even more reliably sardonic in his understanding of the world we live in.

* * *

So, after all this long and eventful half-century since the day I diffidently handed the unfinished manuscript of The Space Merchants over to Horace Gold, what do I think of the book itself?

I think it isn’t exactly a conventional novel, which may be why so many editors declined the chance to publish it. Certainly it wasn’t a conventional science-fiction novel, as the term was understood in those early days, it lacking radar-eyed and multilimbed alien characters, as well as their squadrons of faster-than-light battlewagons. What it was, and is, is what Kingsley Amis felicitously termed a “comic inferno” or a “new map of hell.” As such, readers who shared my and Cyril’s apprehensions about the world of the future heard a voice that shared their concerns, and liked what they heard.

And I would make no stronger claim for the book now.

 
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Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine

One by one, I showed the tearsheets of Gravy Planet, to every publisher in America who had ever published a science-fiction book or given any sign that some day he might. One by one, they turned it down cold. These publishers, remember, were firms to whom I had been regularly selling scores of science-fiction books, more than any other agency — indeed, to the most important markets frequently more than all other sources combined. With many of the editors, they and I had come to look on each other as personal friends.

That didn’t mean they would buy our book. As one of the better-paying editors said, “Since we’re friends, Fred, I can be candid with you.. This manuscript is simply not of professional caliber. What you need is to find a professional writer to pull it all together.”

What I have sometimes said about that since is that we couldn’t find a professional writer to help us, we found an amateur publisher, Ian Ballantine, who had just started his own company of Ballantine Books and didn’t know that our book wasn’t publishable. So he went ahead and published it, and made a good profit doing so.

That joke is unfair to Ian. He had had a good many years of experience running other book publishing companies before starting his own. But it’s true that he knew nothing about science fiction.

He did, however, know me, and had for some time.. He decided to trust my judgment, and that turned out generally well for him, not just on The Space Merchants (as two of his editors retitled the book), but in the many years thereafter that I served as an unofficial advisor and trouble-shooter for the firm. (Over those years, Ian himself lost control of his publishing company, but not because of taking on the sf program.)

The Space Merchants began showing off its legs in other ways, not just in the sales at Ballantine Books but in unexpected other income. We began to get requests for foreign editions and translations, first England and France and then, over the years, in more than twenty other languages, perhaps double that. And we very quickly sold the film rights for what seemed like all the money in the world: fifty thousand 1950s dollars, equal to perhaps half a million in today’s limp currency. And it became a steady seller on Ballantine’s backlist for many years after that, with a sizeable check coming our way every royalty period, right up to the time when Judy-Lynn del Rey agreed to revert it to me so I could accept a multi-book offer involving it.

That was a mistake After a few brief weeks of sales, the novel rapidly disappeared from sight into the dungeons of the backlist of St. Martin’s Press. Although from time to time I pleaded with them to revert it so we could let one of the other publishers bring it back to life, all I ever got from Tom Dunne, the editor in charge, was a polite little note saying no, and so the book stayed there, invisibly, and unprofitably, until a couple years ago, when the 21st Century edition. came out.

And sold out almost immediately.

 
To be continued. . . .

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