Posts tagged ‘E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’


Cyril Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John B. Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes and Donald A. Wollheim, from left. (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., July 1939.)

Cyril Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John B. Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes and Donald A. Wollheim, from left. (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., July 1939.)

Jack Robins

Jack Robins

Guest Post By Jack Robins

One of the articles I had written, “There Ought To Be a Law Against It,” described what had actually happened at one of the dinners we had at that Chinese restaurant we frequented.


There Ought To Be a Law Against It

Wollheim, Lowndes, Cohen and I were eating a Chinese dinner one Sunday evening and everything went well (except for the waiter’s giving Cohen’s order to Lowndes and Donald’s to me before we could get things straightened out) until it came to the dessert. We had all ordered mixed Chinese fruits but I was the first to finish it. I had put the last bit of fruit into my mouth and was fishing around for anything that I possibly might have left over when I noticed a brown-black speck floating around in the fluid remaining in the dish. I passed the plate around and asked the boys what they thought they saw in it. Chet Cohen said he saw a baby cockroach and then looked at me as if he wanted to know what the matter was and why I asked him such a silly question. Lowndes insisted it was a “chickroach.” Upon being challenged by Cohen, Lowndes declared that baby chickens were not called baby chickens but “chicks,” and that, therefore, you could not call a baby cockroach anything but a “chickroach.” Wollheim advised me not to show it to the waiter since the latter might charge me extra for it. Lowndes pointed out that, after all a “chickroach” is a Chinese delicacy. Cohen stated that I would undoubtedly have to pay a good deal of money for it in China. Wollheim declared that the waiter would probably swallow it right before my eyes to show me it would not harm me. They all assured me, however, that the waiter most likely would not charge me anything extra for it. In the meantime they finished off their portions of dessert with gusto. I did not show the baby roach to the waiter, however, since I was afraid he would give me another dishful of mixed Chinese fruits in exchange.

Once during the World’s Fair Days in 1939 around the fourth of July, Don Wollheim, John Michel (whose right arm was always giving him trouble until a doctor finally was able to treat it with penicillin), Lowndes, Chester Cohen, and I decided to go on a trip to Tarrytown. I don’t know why we wanted to go. But since that was what they wanted to do, we went.

We took the IRT to the last stop in the Bronx and walked, walked, and walked, all the way to Tarrytown, New York. I had taken along a cheap, used 35mm camera and I took pictures of all of my friends while we wandered the streets of Tarrytown. But being shy and humble, I neglected to ask any of them to take a picture of me, and none of them offered. After awhile we were all famished. We found a diner and went in to eat. Lowndes and I were too poor to order a meal but we noticed on the menu that we could get a quarter of a head of lettuce for 15¢. That was within our budget so we ordered it and asked them to put on it Russian dressing. I thought at the time that it was the most delicious meal I had ever had. For the return trip, we thankfully did not have to walk back. Donald led us to the Tarrytown railroad station and we rode a train back to the City and finally took the subway to our respective homes.

When Damon Knight was writing the book The Futurians, and I told him about the pictures I had taken during our Tarrytown trip, he became interested and wanted to see if he could use any of them for his pending book. I sent him the negatives. The only picture I know that he definitely used was a snapshot of the building containing the apartment that he and other Futurians shared, “The Ivory Tower.” Some say it was called that because of the ivory paint on the walls. But there is a secondary undertone that says, “Here abide writers, who live in their own ivory tower and look at the world through special lenses that provide a distorted view.”

Once at a Lunacon, the Wollheims (Elsie and Don), Robert Lowndes, my son and I were in the only restaurant at the hotel and we were talking about my son’s possible career as an artist, and the difficulties he was having. Robert, who was then an editor of magazines, recalled some of his own early difficulties in the writing field and then told us that we all ultimately end up working in some aspect of our dreams and aspirations, even though it might not be in the goals we originally started with. Elsie and Don agreed. I now realize Robert’s statement was really a summation of his life.

Years later I met Robert in an elevator at a Lunacon. We had not seen each other for a good number of years. Without much ado, he greeted me as if we had seen each other yesterday, and, referring to Edward E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne, which had appeared in print as a serial in a science-fiction magazine, he said with a smile of appreciation, “Isn’t it wonderful that Doc Smith lived long enough to write this story?” I felt then a warmth, a continuation, a never-never ending to a relationship and I realized that here was a friend I would badly miss if he died.

And now I do miss him.

Related Posts:

he Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

I haven’t been in the habit of putting my own stories in the blog, but there are one or two that I think belong here. “The Reunion at the Mile-High” was one. I wrote it as a “festschrift” story for Isaac Asimov and it, along with a dozen or so similarly born stories by other writers, made a volume given to him to celebrate his long and glorious career.

What tickled me was what he said after he’d read it. He clutched his chest and said, “I suddenly thought, what if the story had been true?”

The Reunion at the Mile-High

By Frederik Pohl

In those long and long-ago days — it’s been half a century! — we were not only young, we were mostly poor. We were all pretty skinny, too, though you wouldn’t think that to look at us now. I know this, because I have a picture of the twelve of us that was taken right around 1939. I dug it out to loan it to my publisher’s public relations people just the other day, and I looked at it for a long time before I put it in the overnight mail. We didn’t took like much, all grinning into the camera with our hairless, hopeful teenage faces. If you’d been given a couple of chances to guess, you might have thought we were a dozen Western Union boys on our day off (remember Western Union boys?), or maybe the senior debating club at some big-city all-boy high school. We weren’t any of those things, though. What we actually were was a club of red-hot science-fiction fans, and we called ourselves the Futurians.

That old photograph didn’t lie. It just didn’t tell the whole truth. The camera couldn’t capture the things that kept us together, because they were all inside our heads. For one thing, we were pretty smart — we knew it ourselves, and we were very willing to tell you so. For another, we were all deeply addicted readers of science fiction — we called it “stf “in those days, but that’s a whole other story. We thought stf was a lot of fun (all those jazzy rocket ships and zippy death rays, and big-chested Martians and squat, sinister monsters from Jupiter — oh, wow!) That wasn’t all of it, though. We also thought stf was important. We were absolutely sure that it provided the best view anyone could have of T*H*E  F*U*T*U*R *E, by which we meant the kind of technologically dazzling, socially Utopian, and generally wonderful world which the rather frayed and frightening one we were stuck with living in might someday become. And, most of all, we were what our old Futurian buddy, Damon Knight, calls toads. We weren’t very athletic. We didn’t get along all that well with our peers — and not even as well as that with girls. And so we spent a lot of time driven in upon our own resources, which, mostly, meant reading. We all read a lot.

We even more or less agreed that we were toads. At least, we knew that girls didn’t seem anxious to fall bedazzled by any of our charms. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t that we were hopelessly ugly — well, not all of us, anyway. Dave Kyle and Dirk Wylie and Dick Wilson were tall and actually pretty good-looking. Even the snapshot shows that. I think our problem was partly that we were scared of girls (they might laugh at us — some of them no doubt had), and partly a matter of our internal priorities. We were more into talking than tennis, and we put books ahead of jitterbugging.

That was half a century ago. In other words, history. My secretary, who is also my chief research assistant when I need a specific fact from the library, tells me that 62.8 percent of the people alive today weren’t even born then, which undoubtedly means that that ancient year of 1939 seems as remote and strange to most people now as the Spanish-American War did to me.

I would like to point out, though, that 1939 didn’t seem all that hot to us, either, even while we were living it. It wasn’t a fun time. We were the generation caught between Hoover and Hitler. We had the breadlines of the Great Depression to remember in our recent past, and the Nazi armies looming worrisomely in our probable future. When we looked out at the real world we lived in we didn’t much like what we saw.

So, instead, we looked inside the stf magazines we adored, and then we looked inside our own heads. We read a lot, and we tried to write. Because the other thing about us, you see, was that we were all pretty hardworking and ambitious. Since we weren’t thrilled by our lives, we tried to change them. We had our meetings — we’d get together, once a month or so, in somebody’s basement or somebody else’s living room, and we’d talk about this and that; and then we’d go out for an ice-cream soda; and then we’d gradually splinter apart. Some of us would go home — especially the ones who had to get up in the morning, like Isaac Asimov. (He worked at his parents’ candy store, and the commuters started coming in for their morning papers at five-thirty a.m.) Most of the rest of us would just wander, in twos and threes. I’d start out by walking Dirk and Johnny Michel to their subway station. But generally, by the time we got to it, we’d be in the middle of some really interesting discussion (did the General Motors Futurama at the World’s Fair have the right idea about the World of Tomorrow, all twelve-lane superhighways and forty-story apartments? Were John Campbell’s Arcot, Wade & Morey stories as good as Doc Smith’s Skylark?) — so then they’d walk me back to my station … or around the block … or anywhere.

Always talking. Talking mattered to us. Writing mattered, too, almost as much. We did a lot of it, on our battered second-hand portable typewriters, each on his own but always with the intention of showing what we had written to the others. Words mattered, and we particularly intended to make our words matter. Somehow. We didn’t really know how, exactly, but when you think of it, I guess we succeeded. If we were toads, as Damon says, then sometime or other some wandering fairy princess must have come along and kissed us, and turned us into something different … or we wouldn’t have been getting together at the top of the Mile-High Building for our Fiftieth Reunion, with reporters allover the place and our older, considerably more impressive faces stating out at the world on the Six O’Clock News.

You can’t fly nonstop from Maui to New York, even on the sleeper, because they don’t let flying boats operate over the continent. So I had to change planes in Los Angeles. Naturally I missed my connection, so when we finally landed at Idlewild I was late already.

The porter cut a taxi out of the snarl for me — it’s wonderful what a five-dollar bill can do at an airport. As I got into the cab, I stretched my neck to look toward the New York City skyline, and I could see the Mile-High Building poking far above everything else, looking like a long, long hunting horn sitting on its bell … if you can imagine a hunting horn with gaps along its length, held together (as it seemed at that distance) by nothing bigger than a couple of pencils. They say they need those wind gaps in the tower, because a hurricane just might push the whole thing over if they didn’t allow spaces for the air to get through. Maybe so. I’m willing to believe that the gaps make the building safer, but they certainly aren’t reassuring to look at.

Still, the Mile-High has managed to stay up for — let’s see — it must be six or seven years now, and it’s certainly an imposing sight You can see it from anywhere within forty or fifty miles of New York. More than that. It’s so immense that, even across most of Queens and part of Brooklyn, when I looked at it! was distinctly looking up. Then, when I got out of the cab at its base, it was more than big, it was scary. I couldn’t help flinching a little. Whenever I look straight up at a tall building I get the feeling it’s about to fall on me, and there’s nothing taller than the Mile-High.

A limousine had pulled up behind me. The man who got out looked at me twice, and I looked at him thrice, and then we spoke simultaneously. “Hello, Fred,” he said, and I said:

“Doc, how are you? It’s been a long time.”

It had been — twenty years, anyway. We were obviously going to the same place, so Doc Lowndes waited for me while I paid off the taxi, even though it was gently drizzling on Sixth Avenue. When I turned away from the taxi driver, after a little argument about the tip, Doc was doing what I had been doing, staring up at the top of the Mile-High. “Do you know what it looks like?” he asked. “It looks like the space gun from Things to Come. Remember?”

I remembered. Things to Come had been our cult movie, back in the l930s; most of us had seen it at least a dozen times. (My own record was thirty-two.) “Yeah, space, I said, grinning. “Rocket ships. People going to other planets. We’d believe almost anything in those days, wouldn’t we?”

He gave me a considering look. “I still believe,” he told me as we headed for the express elevators to the top.

The Mile-High Building isn’t really a Things to Come kind of edifice. It’s more like something from that even more ancient science fiction film, Just Imagine silly futuristic spoof packed with autogyros and Mars rockets and young couples getting their babies out of vending machines. I first saw Just Imagine when I was ten years old. The heroine was a meltingly lovely teenager, just imported from Ireland to Hollywood, and that movie is why all my life I have been in love with Maureen O’Sullivan.

The Mile-High Building doesn’t have any of those things, least of all (worse luck!) the still lovely Maureen, but it is definitely a skyscraper that puts even those old movie-makers to shame. To get to the top you go a measured mile straight up. Because the elevators are glass-walled, you get to see that whole incredible five thousand plus feet dropping away as you zoom upward, nearly a hundred miles an hour at peak velocity.

Doc swayed a little as we accelerated. “Pretty fast,” he said. “Real fast,” I agreed, and began telling him all about the building. It’s hollow inside, like an ice-cream cone, and I knew quite a lot about it because when I was still living in New York City, before I could afford the place on Maui, I used to know a man named Mike Terranova. Mike was a visualizer working for an architect’s office — at another point in his career he did the drawings for the science fiction comic strip I wrote for a while, but that’s another story, too. Mike really was better at doing machines and buildings than at drawing people, which is probably why our strip only ran one year, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. He was a big fan of the Mile-High. “Look at the wind gaps in it,” he told me once, as we walked down Central Park West and saw the big thing looming even thirty blocks away. “That’s to let the wind through, to reduce the force so it shouldn’t sway. Of course, they’ve also got the mass dampers on the two hundredth and three hundredth and four hundredth floors, so it doesn’t sway much anyway.”

“It’s just another skyscraper, Mike,” I told him, amused at his enthusiasm.

“It’s a different kind of skyscraper! They figured out the best offices are the ones with an outside view, so they just didn’t build any offices inside! It’s all hollow — except for the bracing struts and cables, and for the three main floor — through sections, where you change elevators and they have all the shops andthings.”

“It’s brilliant,” I said; and actually it was. And I was explaining all this to Doc, and all the time I was talking we were flashing past those vast central atria that are nearly a hundred stories high each, with their balconies, and flowers growing down from the railings, and lianas crisscrossing the central spaces; and Doc was looking at me with that patient expression New Yorkers reserve for out-of-towners.

But all he said was, “I know.”

Then I was glad enough for the break when we walked across the hundredth-story level, between the soda fountains and the clothing shops, to the next bank of elevators, and then the next. Then you get out at the top, five thousand and change feet above the corner of Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, and you have to take an escalator up another flight to the club itself

I don’t like standing still, so I took the escalator steps two at a time. Doc followed gamely. He was puffing a little as we reached the door the doorman was already holding open for us.

“Put on a little weight, I see,” I told him. “Too much riding in limousines, I’d say. There must be big bucks in the poetry racket these days.”

I guess my tone must have sounded needling, because he gave me a sidelong look. But he also gave me a straightforward reply, which was more than I deserved. “I just don’t like taxi drivers,” he said. “Believe me, I’m not getting rich from my royalties. Publishing poetry doesn’t pay enough to keep a pig in slop. What pays my bills is readings. I do get a lot of college dates.”

I was rebuked. See, we Futurians had been pretty sharp-tongued kids, big on put-down jokes and getting laughs at each other’s expense; just the thought of coming to the reunion seemed to get me back in that mood. I wasn’t used to seeing Bob in his present gentler incarnation.

Then the white-haired woman took our coats, and even gentle Bob got a kind of smirk on his face as I handed over my trenchcoat. I knew what he was looking at, because I was wearing my usual at-home outfit: canary-yellow slacks, beach-boy shirt, and thongs. “I didn’t have a chance to change,” I said defensively.

“I was just thinking how nice it is for you folks that live in Hawaii,” he told me seriously, and led the way into the big reception room where the party had already started.

There had certainly been changes. It wasn’t like the old days. Maybe it was because they were talking about making Bob poet laureate for the United States. Or maybe it was just the difference between twenty and seventy. We didn’t have to explain how special we were now, because the whole world was full of people willing to explain that to us.

There were at least a hundred people in the room, hanging around the waiters with the champagne bottles and studying the old pictures on the wall. It was easy to see which were the real Futurians: they were the ones with the bald spots or the white beards. The others were publicity people and media people. There were many more of them than of us, and their average age was right under thirty.

Right in the middle was Dr. Isaac Asimov, sparring good-naturedly with Cyril Kombluth. They were the center of the biggest knot, because they were the really famous ones. General Kyle was there — in uniform, though he was long retired by now — telling a young woman with a camera how he got those ribbons at the battle of Pusan. Jack Robinson was standing in the background, listening to him — no cameras pointed at Jack, because the reporters didn’t have much interest in schoolteachers, even when that one had been one of Harvard’s most distinguished professors emeritus. I saw Jack Gillespie, with a gorgeous blonde six inches taller than he was on his arm — she was the star of one of his plays — and Hannes Bok, looking older and more content than he used to, drinking Coca-Cola and munching on one of the open-faced sandwiches. There wasn’t any doubt they were pretty well known by any normal standards. Jack had already won a Pulitzer, and Hannes’s early black-and-whites were going for three thousand dollars apiece in the galleries on Fifiy-seventh Street. But there’s a difference between say-didn’t-I-see-you-once-on-TV and famous. The media people knew which ones to point their cameras at. Cyril didn’t have one Pulitzer, he had three of them, and the word was he’d have had the Nobel Prize if only he’d had the sense to be born a Bolivian or a Greek. And as to Isaac, of course — well, Isaac was Isaac. Adviser to Presidents, confidant of the mighty, celebrated steady guest of the Jack Paar show and star of a hundred television commercials. He wasn’t just kind of famous. He was the one of us who couldn’t cross a city street without being recognized, because he was known by features to more people than any senator, governor, or cardinal of the Church. He even did television commercials. I’d seen him in Hawaii, touting the Pan American Clipper flights to Australia … and he didn’t even fly.

They’d blown up that old photograph twelve feet long, and Damon Knight was staring mournfully up at it when Doc and I came over to shake hands. “We were such kids,” he said. True enough. We’d ranged from sixteen — that was Cyril — to Don Wollheim, the old man of the bunch: why, then he had been at least twenty-three or twenty-four.

So much has been written about the Futurians these days that sometimes I’m not sure myself what’s true, and what’s just press-agent puffery. The newspaper stories make us sound very special. Well, we certainly thought we were, but I doubt that many of our relatives shared our opinion. Isaac worked in his parents’ candy store, Johnny Michel helped his father silk-screen signs for Woolworth’s Five and Ten, Dirk Wylie pumped gas at a filling station in Queens, Dick Wilson shoved trolleys of women’s dresses around the garment district on Seventh Avenue. Most of the rest of us didn’t have real jobs at all. Remember, it was the tail end of the Great Depression. I know that for myself I considered I was lucky, now and then, to get work as a restaurant busboy or messenger for an insurance company.

A young woman came over to us. She was reading from a guest list, and when she looked at me she wonderfully got my name right “I’m from Saturday Evening Post Video, “she explained. “You were one of the original Futurians, weren’t you?”

“We all were. Well, Doc and I were. Damon came along later.”

“And so you knew Dr. Asimov and Mr. Kornbluth from the very beginning?”

Continue reading ‘The Reunion at the Mile-High’ »


The Naming of Names

If what you’re writing is science fiction and the character you need a name for has three heads and seventeen eyes and lives on the ninth planet of Aldebaran, what writing secrets I am about to pass on to you won’t help you much. (Except that I will urge you to make it pronounceable. I still remember Doc Smith’s character Worsel the Velantian from my teen-age days, while cleverer names. but names composed entirely of consonants or musical notes that I encountered within the last few months are gone.)

But if it’s a human being you need to christen, I do have a few suggestions to offer. Suggestion Number One is: Know where your name comes from. Don’t just take some name that’s been inhabiting your subconscious for the past year or so. I speak on this subject with authority because I did that one wrong, many years ago;

The story I wanted to write involved a takeoff on Maxwell’s demon, a nonexistent little creature that illustrated some problems in quantum mechanics. For a title for my story, I wanted a human name that was racially inoffensive, easily pronounceable and, if possible, amusing. The subconscious quickly produced “Wapshot,” and my story was quickly published as “Wapshot’s Demon.”

It was only after the story was well and truly out before the world that I began to wonder whether John Cheever, author of The Wapshot Chronicle, the successful novel based on his New Yorker stories, was going to be unhappy with me. He never said anything about it, but for some time I expected a wrathful letter.

So there, for your edification, is an example of what you shouldn’t do. Don’t take some other writer’s presumably invented name to use in your story.

Now, how do you avoid it? Easy. Collect the obituary pages from your local newspaper. Dead people have no civil rights, not even in England where the laws are all in favor of the person libeled. Foreign-language papers are particularly useful for ethnic names, whether obtained in the U.S. or wherever your wanderings take you. (And, just to make sure, I generally pick a first name from one dearly beloved and a family name from another.)

However, use reasonable care. If the person who just won a judgment for $100,000 against you because he tripped on your sidewalk is named Jim Jumpup and in the same day’s paper you find obits for James Black and William Jumpup, and you choose to invent a loathsome drug peddler in your next story named, wait for it, Jim Jumpup, the judge is unlikely to believe that you did not intend it personally.

Related posts:
Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom,
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934

    Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934.

The way I met Isaac Asimov was the way I met almost everybody else who became not only important to me as a teenager but a lifelong friend. Like every other kid in the world, I met a lot of other kids in those years from, say, 14 to 19 — in school, in the neighborhood, in the YCL, in the (don’t laugh) Olivet Presbyterian Church Thursday afternoon teenagers’ class, which I attended until I was 17. But those friends came and went and were gone, while many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives — Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two — Jack Robins, Dave Kyle — whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later, although none of us are very mobile these days and it’s been a while since we got together.

I digress. (In fact, you may have noticed, I do it often.) In those days, the thing was that we kids had been captured by science fiction. And when a burgeoning fandom gave us a chance to meet other captives, we signed up at once.

Like most of us in the New York area, Isaac’s first clue that there was a way to join others came from reading Hugo Gernsback’s magazine, Wonder Stories. In an effort to improve sales, Gernsback had started a correspondence club, the Science Fiction League, and allowed some members to charter local chapters. One, the Q (for Queens) SFL, was in the New York area and was the point of first contact for most of the area’s newbies because they’d read about it in the magazine.

So the QSFL was where Isaac first showed up, but we Futurians kept an eye on their new blood. Anyone who turned up with an interest in writing sf as well as reading it, we kidnapped; that was one of the reasons the QSFL’s heads, James Taurasi, Will Sykora and Sam Moskowitz, weren’t real fond of us. And Isaac made it clear that he was definitely going to become an sf professional writer, as soon as he figured out how.

At that time Isaac didn’t give many indications that he would achieve that ambition, much less that he would become I*S*A*A*C  A*S*I*M*O*V. He was, if anything, deferential. Isaac was born Russian-Jewish, brought to America as a small child when his father, who had immigrated early, was at last able to send for his family.

Many of the Futurians had already begun to write sf stories, showing the mss. to each other and talking about the stories’ successes (few) and flaws (many). One or two of us had actually made some tiny sales. (Including me. I had had a truly sappy poem published in Amazing Stories.) A few of us had begun teaming up as collaborators. Isaac yearned, but he had to miss most of that. His parents owned a candy store at the eastern edge of Prospect Park, and their children had to help with the work of running it. Isaac got to our meetings when he could, but seldom to the writing sessions.

Continue reading ‘Isaac
Part 1 of I don’t know how many’ »

Doc and Jeanie Smith, 1958.

Doc and Jeanie Smith, 1958.

When I first began obsessively reading science fiction, at about the age of ten, all sf writers were as gods to me. Some, however, were bigger gods than others, my holiest trinity being Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Edward Elmer Smith, Ph. D. — with Doc Smith at the top of the heap because he was the one who wrote the Skylark novels.

In those days, I couldn’t afford the exorbitant cover price of an sf magazine, which could run as much as 25¢ apiece. I got my fixes in a second-hand magazine store. These were Depression days, remember, and there were second-hand everything stores all over the place. There the magazines might sell for a dime, and the storekeeper would buy them back from you for a nickel when you were through if you liked. (But what fan would sell off parts of his collection?) The trouble with getting your magazines that way was that you spotted issues you hadn’t read in no particular order in the bins, which was an annoyance when you were reading serials.

And serials were what Doc Smith was good at. First there was the Skylark trilogy, then the Lensman novels. Every couple of years, Doc would give us another masterpiece of interstellar adventure, with heroes in vast machines going even vaster distances to find bizarre aliens — to befriend or, if they were evil, to triumph over. Does that sound at all recognizable? You bet it does, because it was in the fertile mind of Doc Smith that the very first space opera was born, and every episode of Star Trek, Star Wars and a host of others owe him a debt they can never repay.

Doc first wrote The Skylark of Space as early as the teens of the young 20th century, just for the fun of it. He did try it on a publisher or two, who had no interest in this weird tale — perhaps, his bride, Jeanie, conjectured, because the story was all big machines and strong, single men with little human interest. Doc conceded the possibility but disqualified himself from trying to repair the gap.

However, there was that nice Mrs. Garby down the street. When approached, she agreed to write the necessary pages of romantic chat between the fictional inventor of atomic energy, space travel and much else, Richard Ballinger Seaton, and his beloved longtime fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman. Doc inserted her episodes of love stuff where appropriate, and that is why the appropriate byline for The Skylark of Space is “by Edward E. Smith, Ph. D., and Lee Hawkins Garby.” (In the later books Doc plucked up his courage and wrote the boy-girl material himself. I can’t tell the difference.) But, alas, even with human interest no one seemed to want it, so Doc retired it to a bottom desk drawer. There it stayed, almost forgotten, for years. . . .

Until, one day, Doc stopped by the general store to pick up some necessities. He noticed a new magazine called Amazing Stories. On inspection, it appeared to be publishing stories about the future. He hastily exhumed the rejected story and sent it off to them, they bought it at once … and a new kind of fiction was born.

Over the years, many another sf writer tried to copy Doc’s style of celebration of not-yet-existent science and super-technology. None really succeeded, perhaps because they were not naïve enough to believe in the stories they were writing. John Campbell, in the years before he turned to editing Astounding/Analog, perhaps came closest, though his attempts, like Doc’s, didn’t seem to concern real, live people. Perhaps what he needed was his own Mrs. Garby.

Of course, the simple concept of Mankind’s vast super-weapons duking it out with other, alien super-weapons all by itself was easier to borrow and there’s plenty of that still around. Fortunately for all of us, because if we didn’t have that what would we watch on television?

Doc’s doctorate was in chemistry. His particular specialty was in food chemistry, with particular attention to the chemistry of the doughnut, but wheaten edibles of all kinds were within his purview.

I know this because Doc’s wonderful daughter, Verna Smith Trestrail, with her nearly as wonderful husband, Albert, became good friends with Betty Anne and me. How good? Well, when the Trestrails complained that we always stayed at a Holiday Inn instead of at their house when we drove to central Indiana for our once-a-summer visit with them, and we said it was because the Holiday Inn had a pool, what did they do? Why, they put in a pool for the next summer.

Albert’s special claim to our affection came in several parts. One was that he had built in his basement the finest privately owned model railroad layout I have ever seen, complete with a lake, a steel mill and tracks for four or five trains at a time. Another was his history. He and Verna had met when he was her high-school teacher. Albert was very proper with his student, but as soon as Verna was 18, he swept her off her feet and married her before she could get away. Not that either of them ever regretted it. They had as perfect a marriage as any couple I have ever known until Verna died and Albert followed.

Verna looked like any pretty, middle-aged — and empty-headed — Hoosier housewife until you found out that she had a towering measured IQ, higher than either my own or Isaac Asimov’s. Quite a few of the highest-IQ people I’ve known (no, not Isaac. Or, for that matter, me) have been somewhat quirky or stand-offish, but Verna was as sweet as apple butter. She was also a great cook and, as mentioned, owned a stock of her father the baking and frying chemist’s personal recipes. Perhaps formulae would be a better term, because they not only specified what kind of wheat to use and how to grind the flour, but even at what time of year the crop should have been planted. And when Verna made his flapjacks for us, they were worth the trouble.

Doc retired not long after World War II. The kids were grown, and Doc and Jeanie moved to Florida, where they took up residence in a double-width trailer, in a park near Tampa. They actually lived in that trailer only nine months of the year. When Florida began to warm up for summer the two of them would transfer to their other trailer, slimmer and more roadable, and drive clear across the country to their summer stamping grounds on the Oregon coast.

Around that time, local science-fiction cons began to spring up all over the place. Doc discovered that he enjoyed them. So did I. We met pretty often at one or another of them, and we became friends.

Although the super-high-tech, atomic-powered spacecraft that Doc wrote about were the size of ocean liners and flitted from one star system to another at considerable multiples of the speed of light, their creator was modest in his modes of travel. A light pickup truck was good enough for the Smiths.

When, having been invited to the Cape to watch the launch of America’s mightiest space rocket, the Saturn 5, I decided to make a detour on the other side of the Florida peninsula for a visit with the Smiths, I was sure Doc would want to hear all about what the space agency was planning for this new titan. He did, and that gave me an idea. My invitation included a guest if I chose to bring one, so why shouldn’t that one be Doc Smith? I mentioned to him that it was only a short hop from Tampa to Orlando; he could share my hotel room that night and see the launch in the morning.

But Doc looked startled at that idea, then firmly negative. Jeanie didn’t like the idea of him going up in airplanes, and, no, he had never flown in one

Reluctantly I gave up the idea, but it would have been fun.

(End of Part One. Part Two will follow as soon as I write it.)

Which, as you know, is the largest island in the Marquesas group, and the one in whose harbor we are now anchored so that our shipmates may storm ashore in search of tapa cloth and guaranteed authentic ironwood carved war clubs.

Betty Anne and I, shipboard, 2009.

Betty Anne and I, shipboard, 2009.

The other thing about Nuku Hiva is that it is the last dry land we are going to see until, after seven more days at sea, we dock once more in San Diego. This has certain consequences, among them the fact that something we do with our computers is incompatible with something the local comsats do up there in orbit. I won’t bore you by providing a more technical explanation of the problem (as if I could!), but what it means is that the posts I have been writing for transmission to our blogmeisters, Dick and Leah, aren’t going to get transmitted anywhere until we are back in our own home. And then they may not get to you in the proper order, as planned for your maximum reading enjoyment.

Ah, well. Sorry about that. I’ll try to do better. Meanwhile. . . .

I said in the beginning that I intended to provide reminiscences of some people who might interest you, and you might like to get an idea of who these people are. They appear to come in five categories: writers I have collaborated with to one degree or another (Williamson , Kornbluth, Asimov, Hubbard, etc.), writers who were my clients when I was a literary agent (Asimov, Budrys, Wyndham, etc.), writers I published when I was an editor (Asimov, Niven, Doc Smith, Heinlein, etc.), writers I hung around with a lot (Asimov, Silverberg, Ellison, etc. — you will note that some people come under more than one of these headings) and, the smallest of these categories, the nonwriters. This includes editors and publishers (the Ballantines, John Campbell, Horace Gold, etc.) and a few assorted scientists, politicians and other special cases (Carl Sagan, a local Democratic Party boss, a U.S. senator and so on).

Quite a few of these I have already written about in one form or another and those bits just need touchups to pass on to you, and so I will start them soon and keep them going as long as my right index finger permits. Along with whatever other kinds of comments I think you might be willing to sit still for. And I hope you’ll enjoy.