Posts tagged ‘Robert Sheckley’

Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley was a great — and greatly funny — writer of science-fiction short stories. Along with “William Tenn” (aka Phil Klass) and damon knight, he filled the magazines in that thrice-blessed decade of the ’60s with an apparently infinite supply of great little comic stories. When I say there was nothing like them before or after I know whereof I speak, because by the time the ’60s came along, I was a magazine editor desperate to find writers like them that I could publish. Oh, I did find some, including some really good ones, but no masterpiece-a-week humor generators like those.

I had met Sheckley when he was just beginning his run of great comic stories. Harlan Ellison had written about him, saying, “If the Marx Brothers had been writers they would have been Robert Sheckley,” and I had made a point of getting some of his published stories to check it out for myself. When we turned out to be attending the same party I made it a point to get a conversation going with him. We were getting along pretty well, and when I mentioned that my house was on a tidal river he got interested quickly. “You do? Well, I’ve got this boat that I don’t take out much because I don’t know many people who live on the water. Maybe I could come get you and take you out for a spin.”

That sounded like a great idea. It kept on sounding that way until I mentioned that the river had three low bridges between the ocean and my house and he, glumly, announced that his sailboat had an eighteen-foot mast. Then he told me how much he’d liked a book of mine that had just come out, and I told him how some of his stories had made me laugh out loud.

Then, when we started talking business, he asked if I could get him better pay than he had been receiving for his short stories. I assured him I could, and I did. Actually I doubled his monthly income almost at once. It wasn’t hard. I just changed the destination of each new manuscript that came popping out of his typewriter, for, like many new writers, Bob had convinced himself of a crippling fallacy. The fallacy is that beginners would have to work their way up through the low-paying markets — then paying about a penny a word, like Imagination — before they would be able to earn the rates that were double or triple that from Galaxy or the other leaders in the field.

What makes that a fallacy is that submitted stories come in roughly three levels of quality. There are the winners, which almost editor will buy as soon as he shakes it out of its envelope. Then there are the total losers that hardly anybody is desperate enough to buy and, finally, the stories that need a little work, and an editor will generally help the writer work its flaws away. The only sensible procedure in marketing a story is to send it to the highest-paying markets first, and work your way down if you have to.

Some times a higher-paying editor will help a writer along, as Playboy’s fiction editor did for me at a party when he poured me a drink and said, “You know, I would have bought about half of those stories you’ve been running in Galaxy.” To which I said, “Oh,” and quickly changed my ways.

Of course, those weren’t the only sales I made for Bob. I got him into some TV spots, from which he later got himself into better and better ones, and into double-selling reprints of his work to mostly paperback book publishers, and we became friends.

Then for quite a while I pretty much lost touch with Bob. It wasn’t as much of a blow as you might think, because nearly everyone did. He was doing well, but he was wandering the face of the Earth. What brought him back to New York was a job with Omni. When Ben Bova was elevated from Fiction Editor to Editor in Chief he chose Bob to take over the fiction. It was a good job, paid pretty well. And Bob had always wanted to be an editor for a while.

Only, of course, there were problems.

Continue reading ‘Robert Sheckley:
If the Marx Brothers Had Been Writers…’ »

C.M. Kornbluth

C.M. Kornbluth

I’ve been reading a book I wholly and totally despise about a person I loved a lot. The person is Cyril Kornbluth, with whom I shared so much of my early writing life, and of his. The book is succinctly called C.M. Kornbluth, and it is by a man named Mark Rich, who is described as a writer of short stories and books about toys.

I have to say at once that reading the book in itself took me back to that wonderful world when Cyril and AJ Budrys and Bob Sheckley and Lester del Rey and Jerry Bixby and Harry Harrison and all those other talented, trash-talking, wife-stealing, brilliant friends were still alive and still putting up with each other … and in the process producing a whole new science-fiction canon Reviving those memories was actually a good thing. They are touching to me.

There are, however, some things about this book that aren’t good at all. In fact, they stink.

The first is not particularly important, except that it hurts my feelings. For reasons not known to me, Mark Rich hates me. There is no other conclusion I can reach. As everyone who has written about the book has commented, his portrait of such traits, ascribed to me, of venality, dishonesty, lack of talent and from time to time defrauding of, among others, Cyril, are not borne out — well, not to that degree, anyway — by any other source.

It is quite true that I did go through some bad money troubles, which caused difficulties for my friends and clients. I have never denied this, and indeed have written about it. (And, as soon as some other priorities are dealt with, intend to do so again.)

But it is not just my financial difficulties that Mark Rich chooses to describe. It is also my deplorable lack of talent.

I do sometimes wonder how Rich thinks I managed to write, for instance, my novel Gateway, which happened some time after Cyril’s saddening death, thus leaving him unable to help me with the hard parts. According to Rich’s book, Cyril was the heavy lifter in our collaborations and indeed writing work of all kinds at every point. When, rarely, I was entrusted with an important task to do by myself, in Rich’s opinion, I really did serious harm to the work.

For example, he describes one such task in detail. That was the job of doing the final revisions for the book version of The Space Merchants.

If I may, I will first tell you what Rich says happened, and then what really occurred.

According to Rich, pages 227–230 of his deplorable book, the Ballantine book edition of The Space Merchants “was a version revised by Pohl, since that had been his agreed upon responsibility. The changes are immediately felt, with the opening chapter moving things along at a slower pace in The Space Merchants than they did in Gravy Planet. Some of this comes about by the addition of such unnecessary reminders as ‘he said,’ or even ‘he snapped.'” Rich is also disappointed in “deletions in the serialized text,” such that much of the expository material from the magazine version is missing from the book.

I’m not going to repeat it all for you. It is enough to say simply that Rich feels that my incompetent editing had damaged, among other things, Cyril’s nuanced portraits of female characters, particularly the hero’s wife, Kathy, and the genius-poet Tildy Mathis, and in general (he says), I applied to our novel the sort of pulpwood editing that Ray Palmer insisted on in his magazines.

That’s pretty much what Mark Rich says about the changes.

Now, I would like to tell you what really happened.

In the business of book publishing, it is the practice for manuscripts, at least “important” ones, to be assigned to an editor for a line-by-line, sometimes a word-by-word, reading, followed by a conference between author and editor

When, in the early 1950s, we delivered The Space Merchants to Ballantine, they wanted to get it into immediate release, and so they put it into production right away. This meant their editor gave it that immediate and careful line-by-line reading in preparation for a final story conference with the authors. Because of time pressures, however, that conference took place by phone instead of in person: I on my bedroom phone in Red Bank, Cyril on the one in my third-floor office there and the editor in the Ballantine office in New York.

The conversation was long, friendly and intelligent. I’m afraid I remember almost none of it in detail, and what I do remember is very fragmentary. We were two kids with our first big break, and about all I am sure of is that whatever changes Ballantine Books asked us for, we agreed to.

One of the scenes the editor asked us to remove was a description of the space pilot Jack O’Shea as possessing a long, rubbery tongue like a toad’s, for capturing insects — that being part of a bad idea we had taken out of most, but not all, of the ms.

I do recall one bit of conversation with Cyril after the call. The editor had really complimented us on the Chicken Little scene, and Cyril had observed, “You might have mentioned to Stanley that I wrote it,” and I said, “And you could have pointed out that I suggested the bit in the first place.”

That is truly what happened. All of the changes between the magazine version and the book were made, not by me, but by discussion among the three of us. After which, as I remember, the editor in New York penciled the corrections onto the manuscript and sent it off to the printers. I don’t believe either Cyril or I ever saw that script again. The next step was for us to receive and check the proofs of the pages, which I assume we did together, although I have no real memory of that part of the process.

So if you think those changes are as awful as you say you do, don’t tell me about it. I’m not the guy.

I will have more to say about Rich’s work of character assassination before long, but let that do for a start.


The next total solar eclipse is predicted for 11 July 2010.

The viewable path of the next total solar eclipse, predicted for 11 July 2010.

Remember Omni? It was a wonderful, slick-paper magazine published and edited by Bob Guccione and his gorgeous wife, Kathy Keeton, and I just this minute realized that one of the reasons I liked it so much was that its basic editorial policy was pretty much identical with that of this blog: Its primary interests were science fiction and science, with excursions into anything else that attracted the attention of its editor — in Omni’s case Guccione, in this blog’s case me. We knew that we had interests in common, too, and that’s why I did a lot of writing for Bob’s magazine throughout its all-too-short history.

Pretty much the whole editorial staff of Omni suffered from the same streaks of curiosity as Bob and Kathy and I did, which included not only the policy-makers but the ones that made it happen day by day — that is, Ben Bova, Bob Sheckley and maybe one or two others. And when, in the spring of 1991, we all became aware that one of those splendid sky shows that are called total eclipses of the sun was going to happen later that year it seemed to all of us that someone (preferably me) should cover the event for the magazine.

At the same time, I’ve been looking over some pieces I wrote on various subjects for various periodicals long ago, and wondering how many of you guys would like to see some of them reprinted here. So let’s find out. And to do that, here’s the eclipse of ’91 report, just as Omni published it nearly twenty years ago.

7:27 a.m., July 7, 1991. We’re ninety-six hours from the eclipse, but some of the dedicated eclipse fans are already out on the starboard railings of the S.S. Independence, squinting anxiously at the sun. It’s good and bright, right this minute. That’s pretty much the way you’d expect the sun to be here in these sunny Hawaiian waters, and the good news is that if the moon were going to slide in front of it today instead of four days from now you’d surely say that it was being eclipsed, all right. The bad news is that you wouldn’t be able to make out some of the fainter outer corona because there’s a thin, high fan of cirrus that starts at the horizon and spreads out over the eastern sky. It won’t keep you from getting a sunburn, but it’s just enough to fuzz out the fainter patches of coronal light. Maybe our luck will be better on July 11.

Maybe it won’t, too. Pacific skies are cloudy. I’ve flown over this ocean twice in the last few weeks, fourteen and a half hours from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and there was never a minute when I could look out my window and see no clouds in the sky at all. This morning there are fluffy little clumps of cumulus all over the eastern horizon. Twenty minutes later, while we’re eating our breakfast papaya and omelets on the fantail, a couple of clumps slide right over the sun, and that’s the kind of thing that can really spoil an eclipse for you.

Of course, on the Independence we’ll be a moving target. We should be able to dodge a few cumulus shadows. We’d better do it, too. There are 800 passengers who have booked passage on the Independence for the sole and simple reason that they want to see the sun go out. If they don’t see it with their own eyes some of them are going to be thirsting for blood.

Continue reading ‘Cruising While the Sun Goes Out’ »