Posts tagged ‘Wernher von Braun’

(This is a new feature I’ve been wanting to add to the blog, talking about some of the most memorable meetings I’ve attended — meetings about science, science fiction, world affairs, all kinds of things.. Some of them were one-off or by invitation only, so I can’t urge you to try them for yourself. Most, though, are regularly scheduled yearly functions — for example the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Future Society and (of course!) the World Science Fiction Convention. The good part of that is that I’ll try to time the columns about the open ones for a few months before their next meeting and give details of how to register, so that if one takes your fancy you can try it for yourself.)

The NASA Conference on Speculative Technology

Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell, failed telepath?

This first, and so far only, NASA conference on speculative technology was the brainchild of a NASA man named George Pezdirtz. If I ever wanted to put together a really fun scientific conference of my own would try to hire Mr. Pezdirtz to plan it. He did just about everything right.

To start with, the conference was held on an island off the coast of Georgia. I have come to believe that that is the very best kind of site for a conference that wants to explore new possibilities in its mandate. You see, the only way in or out for most of the participants was a single-engine propeller plane that commuted between the Atlanta airport and the island. In most conferences that feature a lot of high-profile participants, the superstars generally fly in just in time for their performances. Then they fly right out again as soon as they’re over. At Spec Tech they couldn’t do that. There weren’t enough seats on the plane. So nearly all of the conferees hung around for the duration, mingling with the others, to the great enrichment of the discussions that followed each paper.

Of course another factor that made that work so well was that so many of them were in fact superstars themselves.

Before we go any farther, let me make a confession. I had some personal reasons for particularly enjoying it. One was that, during a break in the proceedings, Arthur Clarke found some bicycles nobody was using, and attempted a spot of bicycle jousting — I pedaling, Arthur on the handlebars. (That was about the last time both Arthur and I were spry enough for that sort of juvenile delinquency.)

And then there was the question of Wernher von Braun. He and I had been aware of each other’s existence, but the only tangible connection was that he did keep inviting me to watch rocket launches at the Cape. This troubled some mutual friends, Willy Ley in particular, who thought that Von Braun and I could be good friends, but he never offered any one-on-one invitations, and I couldn’t get past the fact that he had been an officer in Hitler’s SS to take the initiative.

But then came an evening at Spec Tech when we had all been invited to a barbecue on the far side of the island. It was an automobile road away, and there weren’t enough cars to go around. So we doubled up. And for half an hour there I had Wernher Von Braun sitting in my lap. . . . Oh, it didn’t overtly change much, but after that I couldn’t help thinking of him less as a Nazi slave-labor driver and more as a human being who shared the same interplanetary ambitions as I did. I don’t think I would have done what he did to get there. But I wouldn’t have got as far as he, either.

Continue reading ‘Great Conferences I Have Attended, No. 1’ »

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at the Queens Science Fiction League, 1948.

Will Sykora, along with James Taurasi and Sam Moskowitz, were the leaders of the anti-Futurian wing of New York fandom. They had way more members than we, so on votes they had no trouble cutting us off from even things that originally had been our ideas, like the 1939 Worldcon No. 1.

Willy Ley in his natal Germany was a member of the circle of early German rocket enthusiasts, including Wernher von Braun, which were largely responsible for encouraging the research which produced the V1 and V2 flying bombs. By then, however, Ley, a confirmed anti-Nazi, had escaped to America where he became a writer on that and related subjects.

Sykora had no particular connection with Ley. They just both happened to sit at the same table, and there was somebody with a camera.

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The Early PohlThe Early Asimov

The funny story about The Early Pohl:

It was the idea of some of the Doubleday editors to publish a book of the first (and generally the worst) stories ever published by a number of sf writers, including Isaac Asimov and me. As it happened, two of Isaac’s earliest stories had been collaborations with me, and he wanted to include them in The Early Asimov. So to pay me for my contribution to the work, I received a 5-percent share of the income from Isaac’s book.

The funny, if embarrassing to me, part of it:

We kept on getting royalties on these books for some time, and in every royalty period the money from my 5-percent share of Isaac’s royalties was always more than my 100-percent share of my own.

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By the way and P.S:

Did you notice how trivial were the dreadful effects of technology that I was trying to worry the reader with? From jet planes, I warned of sonic boom; from cars, the corroding of stonework.

How ignorant we were even when we thought we were cutting-edge smart!

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L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

As the 1940s mutated into the ’50s things changed.

All through World War II, and for some time after, Astounding had been king of the hill — eagerly read not just in America but also in England, where a young Arthur Clarke was getting around to mailing in his first story, “Rescue Party,” and in Germany, where in wartime days, Wernher von Braun had been able to get his treasured subscription copies only by means of a false name and a neutral mail drop in Sweden.

Around 1950, though, competitors began to appear — first The Magazine of Fantasy, a more literary take on the field, then Galaxy, a more relevant one, along with lesser titles from others. One might have thought that competition could awaken John’s competitive spirit. It didn’t seem to. He had gone through a period of looking for new editorial challenges before America got into the war, with such ventures as the fantasy magazine Unknown, then an attempt to remake Street & Smith’s hoary old aviation magazine, Air Trails, into a science-news magazine called Air Trails and Science Frontiers, neither of which survived very long.

Then for a time, he seemed adequately fulfilled by concentrating on his services to the war effort. (When the Stars and Stripes ran a piece on new rocket weapons one of the authorities they quoted was described as “John W. Campbell, Jr., physicist and war work consultant.” I sent the clip to John for his amusement, but he may not have been amused. He didn’t reply.)

But when the war was over and he was merely the editor of one really great science-fiction magazine again, he seemed to enter a new phase. That was as a believer in some weird and improbable kinds of — I don’t know what else to call it — magic.

A disclaimer. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one to whom John talked non-stop about all the wonderful and clever things that had been accomplished by “us” — which I took to mean the presiding triumvirate who ran Dianetics/Scientology. That, as John described it to me, consisted of three more or less equal-ranked persons: L. Ron Hubbard, the almost forgotten skin doctor Joseph Winter, and John himself.

I believe that each of the three was considered by the other two to deserve the ranking because of services rendered; in Ron’s case inventing the subject matter; in John’s the fact that it could hardly ever have got off the ground without the mighty boost John gave it with his magazine.

And Joe Winter?. I don’t know the answer to that for sure. I didn’t know Winter well, only met him a few times, never talked with him or about him with either of the other two at any length. But he did have a legitimate M.D. and did wage a rather persistent, if quixotic (and markedly unsuccessful), campaign with the medical establishment to grant Dianetics and/or Scientology some respectful kind of recognition. So I think, with no more evidence than I’ve shown you, that what Winter represented to the other two was a touch of legitimacy.

And, yes, I wish I did know some other people who had heard as much of John’s proud progress reports whom I could ask what they thought of it all. But I don’t.

I’m pretty sure that John’s audience for that sort of conversation would have included just about everybody he saw. But I don’t know who all the others were, and rather few of them can be still alive.

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Arthur C. Clarke, photo by Amy Marash,

Sir Arthur C. Clarke at home in Sri Lanka, 2005. Photo by Amy Marash.

I first met Arthur C. Clarke in the 1950s, on the occasion of his first cross-Atlantic visit to New York City By then Arthur had established himself as a first-rate science-fiction writer and he did what sf writers do in a strange city: He looked for other sf writers to talk to.

He found them in the rather amorphously shaped group that called itself the Hydra Club, where I was one of the nine heads that had been its founders. We became friends. We stayed that way for all of the half century that remained of Arthur’s life. We met when chance arranged it — at a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, at an occasional scientific meeting, at assorted “cons” — sf-speak for science-fiction gatherings — in many places at many times.

In the early days Arthur spent a lot of time visiting New York, usually staying at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23d Street, and when possible I would join him for dinner or a drink — that was all expense-account money and happily paid for by my publisher, because I was an editor in those days and eager to publish as much Clarke as I could get my hands on. But by the turn of the millennium our friendship had reduced itself to a desultory correspondence and the odd phone conversation. I had given up editing to concentrate on my own writing. What Arthur had given up was ever leaving his island home in Sri Lanka, where I had never been. (Although I visited a number of other countries, Sri Lanka wasn’t one of them.)

Then, in one of his letters in the early part of 2006, Arthur rather offhandedly mentioned that, a couple of years earlier, in a fit of exuberance, he had signed publishing contracts for several books that, he was now convinced, he would never be able to write himself. Most of them he had arranged for some other writer to finish, but there was one, called The Last Theorem, for which he needed a collaborator.

Continue reading ‘Sir Arthur and I’ »