Posts tagged ‘Radio’

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison did not appear from nowhere. When he first began to show up in the sf magazines he had already been writing from an early age — had even had his work appear in as prestigious a magazine as The New Yorker, but had never really found his voice until the beginning of that period in the early ’60’s. That’s when he began to write the astonishing series of pyrotechnical masterpieces sometimes referred to as the “Repent, Harlequinstories.

More than for most writers, Harlan’s stories and his life seemed both almost part of the same work of art. His home was in the hills overlooking Los Angeles — well, not exactly, in a technical sense, really overlooking it. To overlook the city from Harlan’s front door you would have had to be able to see through some miles of solid rock, because he lived on the far side of the hills.

The house was worth the trip. The name on the door was “Ellison Wonderland.” His writing office would not have shamed a banker, though it centered on nothing more spectacular than a typewriter, and one that was neither computer-based nor even electrified, but powered only by the muscles of Harlan’s ten fingers. His office’s central sound system, he boasted, could deliver any music a visitor requested at the press of a button; and the whole place, like any proper wonderland, had a secret chamber.

And there, in those years of the 1960s, he wrote stories like “‘Repent, Harlequin,&rsqu; Said the Tick-Tock Man,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” and “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” racking up a considerable collection of Hugos and Nebulas in the process. (One writer said, “They ought to give him a Hugo every time he writes a story, just for the titles.”)

I was Harlan’s editor for the first publication of some of the best of those stories, and I have to say that it was not an easy job. We were in a state of war for five or six years on end. There was the Battle of the Douchebag, when Harlan fought tenaciously for his right to have one character in a story call another by that epithet. In a large sense, he was sort of in the right; for generally speaking a writer should be entitled to have his story presented as he conceived it. But I was aware that a significant fraction of our magazine’s readers were fairly young boys, of an age where parents, not themselves readers, might pick up a magazine to see what Tom Junior was reading and be shocked to see that word becoming part of their son’s vocabulary. (Remember we’re talking about a time half a century ago.)

Or the Battle of the 4-Color Border, in which Harlan, having seen some colorful graph strips in, I think, Scientific American, wanted similar strips to frame his next story, and didn’t want to accept the judgment that he couldn’t have them unless we took the printing of the text of the magazine off the cheap black and white press they had always been printed on and substituted a budget-busting color press. And additional skirmishes beyond count.

There was no doubt that Harlan was a major sf writer. The only jarring note was that Harlan was dissatisfied with the possession of that pigeonhole, and so his production of sf stories dwindled as he went on to the exploration of other pastures.

The pasture that was most financially rewarding, I think, was a career as professional lecturer. In return for taking a plane to some college town and talking for an hour or two to a couple of thousand college undergraduates he would receive a check that was usually larger than what a short story brought in, and was a lot less trouble. Moreover, he soon hit upon a way of making it more profitable still. He brought along remaindered copies of his backlist books, and when the talk was over sold them, autographed, to members of the audience.

Audiences loved him. At least, most of the members of his audiences did, though for a few people it was not all that pleasurable. Those were people who were the subject of some of his reminiscences. If I had had any doubt this was true — I never did — I would have learned better on one occasion, in New York one evening just before that year’s annual Nebula Awards dinner.

Harlan had come to New York to speak at the dinner, and his publisher’s publicity people had taken advantage of the opportunity to put him on some radio and TV spots to promote Harlan’s latest book, the anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions. One of the programs was Long John Nebel’s all-night talk show, on which I was a regular. John had had some troublesome experiences with West Coast writers not long before, including Terry Southern, the man who wrote all the funny parts in the film Dr. Strangelove, but on six hours of John’s show rarely responded to a question with more than a “Yes,” “No” or “I don’t know, but maybe.”

So John called me up before booking Harlan with a worrisome question, “Can he talk?”

I assured him that the one problem no one had ever had with Harlan was getting him to talk, but John, wanting insurance, asked me to join the show anyhow.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. That day I made a big one. I said, “Yes.”

When we assembled in the studio and John began to talk he spent a good twenty minutes praising the anthology, though of course he hadn’t read any part of it. Then he turned the mikes over to Harlan, who spent another twenty minutes modestly praising the talents of all the authors in the book, Then John said, “What about you, Fred? What did you think of Again Dangerous Visions?”

That sort of question is not meant to be answered candidly on that sort of program, but I could not make myself join in the previous hymn of worship. What came out of my mouth was something like,, “Well, it’s interesting that Walter Bradbury, the book’s editor at Doubleday, describes it as ‘stories that have been rejected by every editor in the science-fiction field.’ All the same, I think there are some stories there that are really good.”

John, who had been about to lean back in his chair, gave me a quick look and then one at Harlan, whose mouth was already opening for rebuttal. John rapidly returned to the upright position and addressed me. “And why don’t you tell us about some of the stories that impressed you, Fred?” And bloodshed was postponed.

A consideration I had overlooked, however, was that Harlan was to be the keynote speaker at the next evening’s banquet. And I would be sitting at a head table, right under the speaker’s place, in full view of the audience for all of the three-quarters of an hour that Harlan spoke.

It was a memorable evening. There are, however, some memorable evenings that I really would prefer to forget. What’s more, I can prove that some of his assertions were false, as I have, for instance, a copy of my parents’ marriage certificate and the record of my own birth nearly two years later.

Fantasy Commentator 59-60

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.

When John W. Campbell, Jr., washed out of MIT by failing to pass their German course, he didn’t stay in Massachusetts. Instead, he returned to his mother’s home in Orange, New Jersey. He had left some close friendships behind, though, and one of the first things he did after relocating was to write a letter to his Massachusetts friend Robert D. Swisher, a pharmaceutical chemist working for the Monsanto Corporation.

That was the first letter of many, and they were all carefully preserved, misspellings, factual errors and all, by Swisher, and then by his widow. Now they are published, under the guise of an article in the late A. Langley Searles’ fanzine Fantasy Commentator, published as a memorial tribute by Searles’ widow, Alice Becker, M.D. The issue contains nothing but the letters. Its length — 156 large pages — is within accepted book publishing standards. So let’s call it a book, the two of us, all right?

This book, then, contains all the letters John wrote to Swisher over a period of more than twenty years, from John’s early attempts at writing science-fiction stories of his own through his triumphal masterminding of the world’s best science-fiction magazine and his intoxication with L. Ron Hubbard’s invention of Dianetics, followed by his final rejection of that cause — though not of the validity of many of its principles which, called by one name or another, he apparently subscribed to until his death.

As a document bearing on these matters, this is not merely a good, readable book. It is an invaluable one, and the credit for the clarity and completeness that make it such a pleasure to read belongs in no small part to its editor, the late Sam Moskowitz. The source material Sam had to work with was a clutch of actual letters, many of them handwritten and some not easy to decipher, and a considerable fraction of them comprising little more than technical descriptions of the cameras, lenses and films for which the two correspondents shared an affection. All of that photography material Moskowitz skillfully redacted away. What remains is the next best thing to a detailed personal diary of the life of a stand-out major figure in the field of science fiction.

Continue reading ‘The Campbell Letters’ »

Part 3 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Demolished Man


Pohl: Now, getting back to where ideas come from, I’d like to hear from you, Alfie. I want to know where you get your ideas from. Specifically I want to know where you get the ideas for something like The Demolished Man. What persuaded you to write it in the first place?

Bester: Horace Gold! I kind of remember that story vaguely. I was writing the Nick Carter show, and I was having a rough time. I was having trouble with his agent. I was having all kinds of problems. It was a tough show to write, but it was a nice check, so you don’t complain about that.

Horace Gold had just started Galaxy, and he called me. I’d known Horace for years. He said, “Alfie, I want you to write for me,” and I said, “Oh, Horace, come on, will you? I’m so involved with this show, it’s eating up my time.”

He said, “No, I want you to write for me,” and I said, “Come on, you’ve got the greats, you’ve got Fred Pohl, you’ve got Heinlein, you’ve got Ted Sturgeon, and I’m not in their class.”

He said, “No, no, no, come on,” and he would keep on noodging me week in week out. We’d talk on the phone and stuff, and finally I said “All right, Horace.” I’ve got to get him off my back, I’ll submit some ideas. Now I submitted four or five ideas — I can’t remember all of them, it’s so long ago.

I should explain first that I’ve been trained as a detective-story writer and adventure writer and a comic-book writer and so on — always to do it the hard way. You do it the hard way, if you want A to get to Z, he just can’t get there, he’s got to hit conflict B off which he caroms into conflict C, D, E, F, G and so on. What you do is you set up an impossible situation for you as a writer and then you solve it, and that makes a story. So I set up some impossible situations.

This was very early in radio and television writing, and I practically invented for myself the open-story technique. The closed-story technique is the Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, in which a murder is committed and whoever the detective is goes around picking up clues from various people. You don’t know what the hell is going on and at the very end the big surprise comes and he, the butler, whatever, dunnit. That’s the closed mystery.

At the time, I had got rather tired of it. I was carrying too many shows and stealing my own scripts from myself, and looking through my file of scripts, I found one which I thought I could pinch for the other show, and reading through it I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’ve written all the wrong scenes. I have not written the action as it happened — I have written the result of the action and the detective’s puzzlement in how to interpret the result of the action.”

So I said to myself, “Why don’t you do a script in which you write the action and let the detective be puzzled? And we’ll watch them both. That’s a different story.”

Of course, it’s a cliché now; they’re doing it all the time. But this was years ago — back then it was brand new. I thought, I’ll do an open story for Horace, so I’ll set up something really rough.

So one of the suggestions I made was, “Horace, what if we have police equipped with time machines? So if a crime is committed, they can go back in time to the very beginning of the crime and ferret out a criminal. And how can a guy get around them, get away with it?”

That was the idea. The second idea was to do with ESP, mind reading, and there was a third and a fourth, each of which I had developed ever so slightly, just to give him an idea of what it was.

And he received the ideas and called me back and said, “Hey, Alf, now come on! Time machines! That’s old hat! ESP! That’s old hat, too! But why don’t we combine the idea of the police and a criminal not with a time machine but with mind reading?”

I said, “Sounds interesting, Horace.”

So we began to talk about it. I remember saying to him once on the phone, “Now look Horace, I cannot have a detective protagonist who can read minds. That’s unfair, it makes him special. I don’t want a special detective; he’s got to be just an average guy.”

Horace said, “Alf, what you gotta do is to build an entire society in which there are people who are espers, who can read minds, and people who cannot. That’s what you gotta do!”

And so the book developed and developed. Months and months of talk back and forth before I began to write it. We finally decided I would extrapolate a society — rather like a black/white society — in which there were various ethnic groups. One ethnic group is the mind-reading group, the other is the non-mind-reading group, and out of that comes social conflict, and so the whole thing builds.

This goddamn book was six months in preparation before I actually began to write it. And that’s how The Demolished Man came about.

But going back to how ideas are generated, one of my favorites was a story called “Fondly Fahrenheit.” I’m going to give you the genesis of that story. I remember this vividly, point by point.

I was reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. He mentioned that a Negro slave had been executed in Missouri for molesting, criminally assaulting and murdering a young girl. He had been hung for it, and Twain went on to say that this Negro slave had committed the same crime in Virginia and his owner had levanted him out of Virginia to Mississippi because the slave was too valuable to be destroyed.

And I thought, “There’s a hell of a story in that, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a hell of a story.” So I very carefully listed it in my “Gimmick” book and that was that.

I have hundreds and hundreds of fragments of ideas in this Gimmick book that I’ve been keeping all my life as a writer. And I leaf through the book all the time, looking for various things. I came across this months later, looked at it, and I was open at the time so I started to write the story. I got through the first scene or so and then I was hung up.

I knew I couldn’t write it as an anti-America story before our Civil War, because I knew nothing about the period — so it couldn’t really be a case of actual slavery. I couldn’t write it in the present because we don’t have chattel slavery; we have economic slavery today.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 3: Ideas and The Demolished Man’ »

As I mentioned in the short piece I wrote about Alfie Bester, he and I had a joint talk for a bunch of English fans thirty-odd years or so ago. To my total amazement, some of them recently came up with a tape of that discussion. They transcribed it, and I thought some of you might like to read it here in the blog.

Here’s what Peter Roberts’ fanzine, Checkpoint, reported at the time:

TYNESIDE “FUTUREWORLDS”: (Ritchie Smith reports on the Newcastle sf film festival) “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl spoke at the Tyneside Cinema for some two hours on June 26th. Bester was smallish, plump, larger-than-life, and explosively friendly in a Hollywood sort of way, right down to calling some people ‘darling’. Pohl looked more literary: ectomorphic, tall, and restrained, full of good anecdotes, like Bester (sadly, too many of them were familiar from Pohl’s essay in Hell’s Cartographers). Afterwards they signed books — Bester’s dedications were especially witty — and the great men and a large minority of North-East fandom went off for a Chinese meal.”


Frederik Pohl     Alfred Bester

   Frederik Pohl       Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation

Recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, by Kevin Williams. Transcript by Sue Williams, edited by Neil Jones and Kevin Williams. Originally published in Rob Jackson’s fanzine Inca 5, December 2009. Additional editing here by Leah A. Zeldes.

Pohl: Let me tell you about Alfie Bester. I’ve known him for a long time, and I first encountered him when I was 19 years old and editing a magazine called Astonishing Stories, and I bought a couple of stories of Alfie’s because I liked them. And then, some years later, Cyril Kornbluth and I had written a book called The Space Merchants, which I sort of hoped might win a prize, but it was beaten out by something called The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.

A little while later, Cyril and I were working on another novel — I think it was Search the Sky. We’d written a couple of others by then, and I’d just begun to edit a thing called Star Science Fiction Stories — a series of anthologies of original science fiction stories. I brought home a story by Alfie Bester that I had just accepted for Star. It was called “Disappearing Act,” and I showed it to Cyril while we were working on our own book.

He gave me a resentful look and said, “You bring me this to read when we are writing that!”

[The novel we were writing was pretty much space opera, while Alfie’s story was a literate gem. But I didn’t explain this in the conversation, which led to a mixup. —FP]

Bester: Cyril didn’t like it?

Pohl: He loved it. He thought it was so much superior to what we were doing that it embarrassed him.

It’s been going on like that — our paths keep crossing, and he keeps doing this superlative work, and now I’ll let him speak for himself.

Bester: The one thing that you must understand is that we admire each other profoundly. I cannot tell you how many times I have read a story or novel of Fred’s and said, “Why in Christ’s name couldn’t I have written that?” — and then run into Fred and I tell him. The truth of the matter is that there is no rivalry between us at all, there is nothing but admiration.

We are rather like the high baroque musicians: We borrow from each other, we learn from each other, we admire each other, we do the same things, or different things, and have a hell of a ball.

Now Fred’s novel which he wrote with Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is, I think, the finest novel ever written in the history of science fiction. It is a brilliant piece of work. Many brilliant things have followed it, but this came along when everybody was obsessed with Doc Smith space opera, which has its own charm — it’s great fun — and suddenly comes this realistic extrapolation of what American life, American advertising, American ecology and American psychosis will lead to eventually.

Horace Gold ran it as a three parter in Galaxy. Gravy Planet, he called it. A tremendous piece of work — exciting, ravishing. I will never forget the scene where that crazy broad with the needle is giving him the works. Fred, that was outrageously brilliant.

Pohl: That scene was all Cyril’s but I’ll accept the credit.

Alfie is one of the greatest writers science fiction has ever had and he is well aware of it — he just wants to be told! Everybody knows the novels, but there was a period in the early ’50s when in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction month after month there was a leading novelette by Alfred Bester.

Bester: Always with the wrong title!

Pohl: Always with the wrong title but always good! They were just brilliant, one after another.

Bester: I once sent two stories to Mick McComas and Tony Boucher (at F&SF) — they had asked for them, of course — and they switched the titles on the stories. I stink on titles, I really do, I’m terrible.

But the point I’m going to make very strongly is the greatness of science fiction. To my mind, it is the last, the last outpost of freedom of literature in the States — I can’t speak for England. In science fiction, we can do what no one else can do in any other medium.

I speak as a magazine writer, novelist and scriptwriter. The constraints of commercial fiction in the States in television, in films, in radio, you name it, are so severe that there is very little you can do. This is one of the reasons why I have written science fiction off and on all of my life. Quite simply because if I come up with an idea which rather enchants me, I would very much like to develop it and do it, so that people would see it and hear it.

If my producer, my director, the client says “No, no, it’s too expensive, no it’s too far out, people won’t understand it, ah forget it, give us something a little less,” then I have to turn to science fiction. In science fiction, you can do anything you please, and God knows the artist needs a free hand. The greatness of science fiction is not the science, not the prediction of the future, not anything you want to name — the greatness is that it is wide open, and we can do exactly as we damn please, and that story will run somewhere, somehow, and you will have your audience, and you will get feedback. And after all, a writer without an audience is no writer at all; you’ve got to have people that you are entertaining.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie’ »

Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester

When the Air Force decided they wouldn’t need my services in order to accomplish the defeat of Japan — the reason for that being that Japan, discouraged by the simultaneous American atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Stalin’s last-minute invasion of their northern front, had finally given its struggle in World War II and surrendered — they sent me home to New York City. There I rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and, for reasons connected with a book I was trying to write, went looking for a job in the advertising business.

I answered three help-wanted ads in the Sunday Times employment section. One of them, a small Madison Avenue advertising agency, Thwing & Altman, took me on as a copywriter.

It didn’t pay as well as I had thought a Mad Ave. advertising job would, but otherwise it was a likable enough job. Its good features included location. Within the perimeter of a circle with a ten-block radius there were literally hundreds of quite good restaurants where I could get a lunch of almost any school and ethnicity. I quickly learned that, even with all that variety available, there were a handful that I kept returning to, and one of those was in the lobby of the Columbia radio (not yet TV) network’s then New York headquarters, the present skyscraper not yet having been built. The restaurant was frequently used by people from the network, and one of the reasons I liked it was that every once in a while I would run into Alfie Bester, also looking to grab a lunch there, and we would have a nice meal together, spiced with shop talk.

The thing to remember about the career of Alfred J. Bester is that he was first and foremost a money writer. He had the talent to do that well. He could write almost anything — science-fiction stories, comics, radio-serial scripts, you name it, and he could do them all at the top of his form — and what particular kind of thing he did write, depending on how the vagaries of the market fluctuated at any given moment, was whichever one of them was paying the most dollars per hour of punching typewriter keys.

Alfie had begun writing science fiction, back in the ’30s, because he had a number of friends — including Horace L. Gold and Mort Weisinger — who worked as editors at Standard Magazines, publishers of, among many other pulps, the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. They coached him in the writing of sf, and bought his practice stories. (Well, they didn’t buy all of them. A very few they rejected, and of those I bought one or two when, as a teenage editor, I was editing Astonishing and Super Science Stories).

Then Alfie discovered that comics were paying better than sf just then, so he tried his luck at comics, discovered that they were as easy to write as sf — for him — and switched his personal production line to comics.

Then he got a tip from his wife, Rolly, that changed everything.

Continue reading ‘Alfie’ »

Walter Schneir

Walter Schneir

Admit it, you have no idea who Walter Schneir (who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 83 on 11 April) was. I’ll never forget him, though.

In 1965, along with his wife. Miriam, he had published a Doubleday book, Invitation to an Inquest, about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the New York couple who had been tried as spies who had given atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, convicted and executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. The book, which argued that the Rosenbergs hadn’t received a fair trial and might well have been innocent of the charges, came to the attention of Long John Nebel, who ran an all-night radio talk show in New York.

He invited the Schneirs to appear on his show, along with Roy Cohn, the former McCarthy aide who had been involved in the Rosenberg prosecution, and me. (Why me? Because I was a pretty good talker and rarely turned John down when he asked … and because I loathed Roy Cohn for what he had done as Senator Joe McCarthy’s pit bull and couldn’t resist the chance to meet him in person. It was that sort of attitude that put me in front of John’s microphones dozens of times when I would have been better advised to stay home and get a good night’s sleep.)

The Rosenbergs

  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

After forty-odd years, the only clear memory I have of Cohn is as a very efficient killing machine. He never sat still and he never stopped talking.

The Schneirs had done an admirable job of collecting evidence that the Rosenbergs had not received a fair trial in many ways: The judge allowed the prosecution improper liberties; their defense attorney had no experience in that sort of case; witnesses changed their stories on crucial elements; worst of all, the case against Ethel Rosenberg in particular rested on the unsupported testimony of just one witness, her brother, David Greenglass. (Who much later confessed to writer Sam Roberts that he had given false testimony, as told in Roberts’ book The Brother.)

All those things and more the Schneirs said into Long John’s mikes, but how much the radio audience heard I cannot say. Cohn talked right over them, never stopping, never conceding a point. So a lot of people — everyone from Bertrand Russell and the Pope to Pablo Picasso — thought the Rosenberg trial was unfair? So what? Those people hadn’t been in the courtroom, and the verdict was in.

On the other hand (you might ask), what about me? I had been in that studio all the long night, listening to every word that had been said, and what did I think?

Why, I thought they were not guilty and should have been acquitted. And the other thing I thought was that they should have been shipped off to Moscow on the next plane to spend the rest of their lives there.

McCarthy and Cohn

Sen. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

The thing about Julius Rosenberg was that he was a true believer. All the things he said to intimate friends that he thought were private (and that those friends then testified to as prosecution witnesses at the trial) and every defiant thing he had said to the court and to lawyers and reporters when the verdict was in showed it. He thought America was evil and the USSR was the hope of mankind. Given any chance to help them triumph over us, he would have been false to his core beliefs if he hadn’t seized it.

I didn’t actually think he had ever had such a chance, though. I didn’t think he knew enough to be able to steal any useful atomic secrets to betray. I thought he was all talk. And in that I was at least partly wrong.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, a lot of ultra-top-secret KGB documents fell into American hands and some of them do specifically name Julius Rosenberg as an agent of espionage for them. They don’t say that his spying was of any value. They don’t come anywhere close to saying that anything Rosenberg did was of the slightest use to any Russian arms designer. But it does show that, against the odds, Rosenberg did somehow make contact with the Russian spy network, and they took him at least seriously enough to record his availability.

And wonders will never cease.