Posts tagged ‘Mark Twain’

 

 

 
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve doubtless seen the meme that asks you to list books that have resonated with you.

A few years ago, Suvudo asked Fred about his favorite books.

Fred mentioned several works that had stayed with him throughout his life, including Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, but then went on to write at length about L. Sprague de Camp’s alternate history Lest Darkness Fall and how it influenced him.

We recommend both Fred’s review and de Camp’s novel.
 

The blog team

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

When I was a child I read everything that came into the house. The majority of these chance-met books that made up my available literary finds were the boys’ (and sometimes the girls’) series works, specifically delivered as gifts for me. None of these made much of an impression on me, though. I read them at maximum page-turning velocity and never looked at them a second time — with two exceptions that I’ll come to later.

I think I now know why these were so dull for me, or at least one of the reasons. There was then, and still is with a few publishers, a truly fat-headed policy whose inflexible law was that children’s books should be “age-specific.” That is, purged of any words not in the officially approved vocabulary of children of the specific age they were intended for.

That was a really, really bad idea. The best way for children to enrich a vocabulary is to let them encounter unfamiliar new words and have to work out their meaning from context. That’s about the way all children learn their native languages, and that is a time-tested system that has worked well since, roughly, the Stone Age.

So when I was six I preferred to read books that were marked as intended for twelve-year-olds, and at twelve I had patience only for declared “adult” works. Which is perhaps why, out of the thousands of books I read before I was old enough to have an adult’s library card, only a handful were still given space in the bureau drawer that was my “bookcase”.

There were, in fact, exactly two books that I not only kept but read over and again, once a year or so, and as a matter of fact I have them still.. They are Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (now in its proper place as one episode in what I still think of as Remembrance of Things Past.)

Why those two and not almost any others? I think it had something to do with the fact that both of them had, on first reading, exposed me to a stable and self-contained foreign environment I had never encountered before — and that was not at all like the Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood I lived in from the age of ten to almost twenty. Most of all, they exposed me to words I didn’t know but sometimes could figure out from context.

Is there a better way to build a vocabulary? I think not — and think as well that there certainly is no other way as pleasurable.

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’ »

Eugenie Clark

   Eugenie Clark

It’s hard to list the Ipsy’s guests in any sensible order, perhaps because they were not an orderly bunch. It does make sense for me to divide the guests into two classes. To begin with, there was the New York science-fiction crowd, all of whom I had known for some time.

In that group were most of the science-fiction people I have already written more or less extensively about in these pages. Among the ones most frequently present were Lester and Evelyn del Rey, Bob and Essie Bolster, George and Dona Smith, Cyril Kornbluth (first as a house guest of mine, then as a nearby resident on his own). Assorted other house guests of mine included Fritz Leiber from Chicago and Jack and Blanche Williamson from New Mexico.

Ted Sturgeon was definitely a regular in an unusual sense. For a couple of months one summer he never went home at all, since at the time, his finances being anemic, he didn’t have a home to go to.

The Pratts had no objection to Ted’s staying in the house when everyone else was gone. However, they didn’t offer to feed him. That was not a problem for Ted, who enjoyed a good dish of eel. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that by the time he finally moved out of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, he had fished out the entire family of eels who lived by the boat dock. They never returned.

 
Any number of other New York-area sf people visited the Ipsy. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was there I think only once, but it was a significant visit, since Fletcher and Inga had plans for Isaac. They spent a lot of that weekend telling him what a wonderful place the Bread Loaf Writers’ Colony was for anyone with the desire, and the ability, to be a serious writer … and, I’m pretty sure, spent an equivalent period of time with the Breadloaf people telling them what a wonderful prospect Isaac was. The effort paid off. Isaac did give Bread Loaf a try; he loved the place, the Breadloaf people loved him and he became a Bread Loaf stalwart.

The other fraction of frequent guests at the Ipsy basically comprised the non-sf friends of the Pratts, many of them with ties to The Saturday Review of Literature. Some of those were actual celebrities of one kind or another, as for example Eugenie Clark, known worldwide as the “Lady with a Spear,” after her bestselling book with that name. Eugenie, as a child, had been fascinated by the works of William BeebeHalf Mile Down, the story of his adventures hanging at the end of almost 3,000 feet of steel cable in his “bathysphere,” a steel sphere about the size of a pup tent, or Beneath Tropic Seas, about his less spine-chilling but even more beautiful experiences walking through warm-water corals with only a mask for breathing.

I could understand her fascination. I had been turned on by the same books at about the same age. The difference between Eugenie Clark and me, though, was that she then grew up to become an actual ichthyologist, and I only to become a writer.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt, Part 4: The Friends of Fletcher’ »

Marmoset.

Marmoset.

What postwar New York had lacked was a gathering point for the area’s sf brethren (and sistren), so Lester del Rey and I created one. I invited a few of my sf friends to come and discuss the subject at my apartment at 28 Grove Street in the Village, Lester showed up with some of his, and we constituted ourselves a sort of roving gentlemen’s (and ladies’) club for people interested in science fiction, especially if professionally.

There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in.

He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else — Basil Davenport, editor (and later judge) for the Book-of-the-Month Club; Bernard De Voto, authority on my personal hero, Mark Twain, whilom editor of The Saturday Review of Literature and eternally the author of its most popular regular column, “The Easy Chair”; Hans Stefan Santesson, editor of a couple of small book clubs which now and then did science-fiction books and so on.

The cut was between the people who primarily did science-fiction, all of whom we knew, and the people who did all kinds of works, but sometime did or sometimes might do a little science fiction as well. And those latter were the ones with whom Fletcher was our strongest link.
 

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t entirely easy with the idea of Fletcher Pratt, considered as friendship material for me. There was a generation gap. I didn’t have any other friends anywhere near that old. Fletcher was pushing fifty, and almost all my other friends were within at least approximate lying distance of my own age, which was then in my late twenties. Even Jack Williamson’s age was not much more than halfway to Fletcher’s. Fletcher was also famous — that is, famous in wider circles than just those of science fiction.

On the other hand, Fletcher did now and then definitely write science fiction himself, which betokened a certain youthfulness of outlook. Anyway, how could anyone be stuffy, stodgy or staid when he was known to spend at least one hour of every day hand-feeding live mealworms to his pack of pet marmosets?

Fletcher owned about a dozen of the little South American monkeys, kept in three or four large cages in a corner of his huge sitting room. They were sweet-looking little beasts, with a fringe of white beard all around their little faces, with their chronic expression of concern.

The census of the pack was not a fixed number. Fletcher encouraged the little animals to breed — not so much because the surplus was always well received by pet dealers, whose payments to the Pratts for those they didn’t keep just about covered the mealworm bill, as, I think, because Fletcher wanted his marmosets to be happy.. He had, of course, given them all names, mostly taken from New York’s literary establishment. The head marmoset, and Fletcher’s personal favorite, was Benny De Voto.

That same room was a great asset to us all. It was spacious, it was conveniently located, and Fletcher and his wife, Inga, were gracious hosts who enjoyed company, When a couple of Hollywood types came to New York with a proposal for a sort of syndicate of science-fiction writers to market their works to film and TV producers the Pratts provided them with a place where they could describe their plan to twenty or so of the area’s leading sf writers. (It came to nothing. The Hollywood duo had nothing tangible to offer the writers.)

Then when many of those same writers wanted to get together to discuss creating an organization of sf writers along lines similar to the Authors League, the Pratts once again offered a venue for the discussion. (And that, too, came to nothing at that time because half the writers declined to join anything that was structured like a trade union, and the other half rejected anything that wasn’t. When SFWA — the Science Fiction Writers of America — at last did come into existence, it was because two writers, Damon Knight and Lloyd Biggle, Jr., declared that they had created it and urged all the other writers whose addresses they could find to send in checks for some $25, upon which they would become members. This was an immediate success.)

Even more important, when such seldom seen heavy hitters as W. Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men, Odd John and many others of science fiction’s early classics, made a trip to New York for other reasons, the Pratts made that room available for a reception. That was a wonderful break for those of us lucky enough to be invited to meet him, and actually a welcome one for Stapledon himself.

He had been invited to New York to participate in a meeting to urge peace in international affairs. Like many respectable European intellectuals, Stapledon found it hard to decline such invitations, but when he got to the Waldorf-Astoria, he found it encircled by a howling mass of anti-communists, perhaps rather like today’s Tea Party hordes, and he welcomed the chance for some quiet conversation.
 

But the Pratts’ appetite for company wasn’t satisfied by what could be accomplished in one — after all — rather small New York apartment. Without telling anyone what they were doing, they went shopping for a more impressive place.

They found what they wanted in Highlands, New Jersey, a wonderfully huge structure that sat on a bluff over the sea, and for the next half-dozen or so years it was, for many of us, our favorite weekend resort.

To be continued.

 
Related posts:

I wrote this more than 20 years ago, for David Hartwell’s critical review zine The New York Review of Science Fiction. I looked it up in connection with a new novel I have begun, tentatively, but almost certainly not permanently, entitled Sweet Home, and thought it might be worth reprinting.
 

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

 
Most of us would argue that science fiction has some special merits denied to most kinds of literature — for instance, its didactic ability to educate, or at least to motivate the desire to be educated, in science, its prophylactic qualities against future shock (if you read enough science fiction hardly anything ever takes you by surprise); its capacity for objective insights into the human condition — what Harlow Shapley called “The View from a Distant Starand so on. Arthur C. Clarke once put it very well when he was asked why he wrote science fiction; he said, “Because no other literature concerns itself with reality.” I’m not sure what “reality” Arthur was talking about, but it is sure that the biggest reality confronting all of us today is change — rapid and widespread change — and science fiction is a literature of change.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

    Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

However, it has recently come to me that there is another way in which science fiction has assets not shared by “mainstream” literature. What led me to think this was a period of reading a lot of Mark Twain, and considering some of the critical assessments of his work.

At first glance, it may seem improbable that the work of this man who died sixteen years before the first science-fiction magazine was published, and never wrote any of the stuff himself (let’s not get into some of his near-misses, like The Mysterious Stranger and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, or that precursor of any number of L. Sprague de Camp novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), has much to do with the subject. But I think it does, and to show what I mean, let’s consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Everybody says Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s greatest work. A fair number of people (of whom I’m one) would even contend that it may well be the greatest American novel ever written. Nevertheless, almost everyone, myself included, feels that the climax of the book does not do justice to what has gone before.

If you haven’t reread Huckleberry Finn in the past four or five years you ought to do it now. It is one of the few books that can be read first at the age of ten, and then again every year or so for the rest of your life, finding new pleasures in it every time. The Duke’s attempt to reconstruct Hamlet’s soliloquy gets funnier the better you know the original. Huck’s relationship to his father, the numb acquiescence of the villagers in the Grangerford-Shepperton feud and its slaughter of the otherwise innocent members of both clans, the abortive lynching — above all, the nature of slavery, as given flesh in Jim — all these things become richer and more insightful as the reader does. The book is a boldly far-reaching triumph, that’s what it is, and any writer who doesn’t envy it is simply himself numbed into complacent ignorance.

But then at the last, when eighty per cent of the book has been a marvel, Tom Sawyer reappears on the Phelps plantation and concocts a lunatic humbug scheme to “free” the slave Jim, who, as Tom well knows, has in fact been freed already by testament of his late owner.

There are some funny, farcical bits in that ending. There are even a few touching ones. Nevertheless. The conclusion of the novel is an affront. Twain has touched our hearts with common human reality; then he pisses it all away in ten chapters of baggy-pants burlesque in which everyone behaves like a fool. There is only one word to describe the last one-fifth of Huckleberry Finn, and that word is dumb.

Continue reading ‘Mark Twain and the Law of the Raft’ »