Posts tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

Gateway by Frederik Pohl


Q: “In your novel Gateway how much of the character Robinette Broadhead is autobiographical and how much is therapeutic?”

A: Well, in a sense every character in every story I ever wrote is autobiographical. That is, every character is basically what I think I would care about, do, and wish for if I were that creature, with that creature’s makeup and history.

That’s not hard for me to do when the character is human, like Robinette. I know what kind of a world he lives in, that he’s been raised by his mother (autobiographical? maybe), what his hopes are for the future (not much, until the chance to go to Gateway comes along for him) and so on, and I can pretty much imagine what my feelings would be like if those things were true of me.

When the character isn’t human, and sometimes isn’t even organic, like Wan-To in The World at the End of Time, it’s harder. Wan To is a ball of energy living in the core of a star. But still he has feelings — like self-survival, maybe jealousy, probably vanity, probably curiosity and so on — enough to make him a character instead of a prop.

(That’s a distinction all we sf writers owe to Stanley G. Weinbaum. Almost every alien creature in every science-fiction story written before the creature named Tweel in his “A Martian Odysseyin 1934, from H.G. Wells’s invading Martians on, was a prop. Only Weinbaum’s Tweel was a character.)

At least I think that’s about what I would be like if I happened to be a ball of radiant energy instead of a human being.

H.G. Wells

        H.G. Wells

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866, way in the middle of the 19th century, but he began living in the 20th, or in the even later Nth, before he was much more than 20 years old himself.

The way he got there was the way so many of us who came afterwards did, by writing stories about things that had never happened or at least haven’t happened yet — that is, what is generally called science fiction.

He didn’t just write it now and then, either, but made it his practice to seek new kinds of science-fiction stories to tell. Such subjects as time travel, interplanetary war, personal invisibility, giving dumb beasts language and bringing idyllic world peace to the human race were all his own until he shared them with other, lesser writers and thus enriched the whole field of literature.

Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison

When Harrycon in Ireland came to pass, it was a blast. A couple of dozen top sf writers showed up-— even Alfie Bester, who was getting into the more serious phases of his blindness — as well as numbers of editors, fans and general hangers-on from all sorts of European, North American and South American countries.

And from the Soviet Union a party of four: my own personal best Russian friend, Yuli Kagarlitsky, the USSR’S only author of a scholarly book on science fiction, Shto eta fantastika?; Vasili Zakharchenko, editor of a boy’s magazine that sometimes published translated American sf stories, and paid for them in cash — in rubles and kopecks; a young woman with an unclear role; and a dark, heavyset man from the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic who claimed, in Russian, to be a writer of children’s stories but was considered by everyone else to be the group’s KGB minder. He didn’t appear particularly menacing His principal activity seemed to be sitting in the hotel lobby and watching Irish TV.

Harry Harrison (the Harry of Harrycon) had planned a program for the opening day which mostly comprised introductory remarks by the principal attendees, starting with our Soviet guests. At first that did not go well, because the first up was Comrade Probable KGB, who spoke, fortunately quite briefly, in his own tongue, which even the Russians had trouble understanding. After a few moments of everybody looking at everybody else the young woman got up from where she was seated at the back of the audience to say, in English, that he had just told us that this was a historic event and he hoped it might be a first step toward a better understanding between our peoples. Everybody clapped briefly.

Next was Vasili, who also elected to speak in Russian and was not at all brief. By then we had a system going, with Vassili pausing frequently to let the young woman put his remarks into English. That was understandable, if bit tedious, because Vassili too chose to comment on the historic aspects of the meeting.

Then another problem came up. There was a small group from Brazil who had managed to get themselves to the meeting in spite of the fact that none of them spoke English. No one present but them spoke Portuguese, either. Gay Haldeman solved that crisis for us. She spoke idiomatic Spanish, and so then after the young woman had put Vassili’s remarks into English, Gay, turning around in her chair to face the Brazilians behind her, gave them a Spanish translation, which one of them understood enough to pass on the gist to his fellows.

Well, that was amusing, but Yuli had yet to speak. Fortunately, he chose to do it in his quite serviceable English, and, even better, what he talked about was how he discovered sf, first through H. G. Wells, whom he called “The Master,” and then, one by one, the great Americans. That was at least a subject everyone was interested in, and when Yuli was followed by Brian Aldiss, everything was going smoothly at last, both then and for the next day.

Then Harry laid on a fine Irish dinner for everybody, complete with some moderately fine Irish wines, and a small Irish orchestra, playing on traditional Irish instruments, to entertain us. This they did, although to be accurate I should say that the most entertaining part might have been when the musicians let some of the authors try to play their instruments. I got the Irish bagpipe. After considerable experimenting, I did get a couple of blood-curdling yawps out of the thing.

(Oh, that bit about the Irish wine. I should mention that a few centuries earlier, when Europe was enjoying the Medieval warm period, Irish people did make wine out of grapes they grew locally, and apparently the art was not entirely lost.)

Most of us hung around another day or so to see the sights of Dublin — some to check the museum’s collection of early books, others to recap Leopold Bloom’s 24-hour roam around the city in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses — and to get to know each other a little better. All in all, I would call it one of the best cons ever.

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The loss of a dear old friend

Martin H. Greenberg

Martin H. Greenberg

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Martin Harry Greenberg, who died on July 2nd after a series of debilitating health problems. Whenever it was, it was a long time ago, maybe in the ’60s, but I do remember the circumstances. I had received a letter from him — the world hadn’t yet got around to emails — inviting me to speak at something called Florida International University, whatever that was. The invitation had come with an offer of a modest honorarium and I had accepted it.

I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for two reasons. These were the years when schools all over the country were beginning to offer courses in science fiction, a development which I approved of and did my best to encourage. And the other and perhaps more important reason was that I really liked talking to college audiences. In six or seven years of speaking at college dates there was only one I wished I had never heard of — and that one was just a couple of days before; I had moved on to the University of Wisconsin, where I had one of my most memorable speaking engagements ever.

I was picked up at the Miami airport by Marty in a car with a Florida International paint job, driven by a slim and youthful-looking young man. There were a couple words of introduction as I got in, but I caught nothing but the name — Joe Olander — being more concentrated on trying to get the car door closed before some speeding taxicab made off with it. The driver had his own priorities, trying to avoid some other taxi’s attempts to remove a fender, so he didn’t take much part in the early parts of the conversation between me and Marty. I approved of the fact that he was concentrating on the task of getting us safely out of the airport.

Then, as we were securely on “Alligator Alley,” the highway across Florida’s southern tip, he began adding, over his shoulder, comments of his own to Marty’s quick course in the history and attributes of FIU.

Marty didn’t seem to mind, or even to think it strange that a car driver should say things like “Marty and I have been scheming for a long time to add a course in science fiction.” That struck me as a bit odd, if praiseworthily democratic on Marty’s part, until a photograph in one of the bits of paper Marty was handing me caught my eye. The photo was of our driver, and the caption under it was, “Vice President of Florida International University, Dr. Joseph D. Olander.”

That put a quite different complexion on some of the things both Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Olander had been saying. I listened quite a lot more attentively as they explained some of the details of what they haad in mind. My speaking invitation, in their plan, was not merely a one-night stand but — they hoped — simply the first step in their campaign for much bigger things. First was to be the addition of a credit course in science fiction to the curriculum, and then perhaps a year or two later — and this made me sit up straight — they planned on hiring a science-fiction author as a Writer-in-Residence at FIU. Unspoken but clearly implied was the item that their number one choice on their list for the job was me.

Continue reading ‘Martin Harry Greenberg (1941–2011)’ »

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’ »

Algis Budrys (Photo by William Shunn).

Algis Budrys
(Photo by William Shunn).

By the mid-1960s, Algis Budrys had become a darling of the critics. In the field of science fiction, two of the most respected at that time were Kingsley Amis and James Blish. Kingsley said that the way A J was going, he might become the most honored sf writer since H. G. Wells. Jim was less restrained. He thought that A J was becoming the finest writer in a second language since Joseph Conrad. One of A J’s stories had already been made into a film, though not a particularly good one, and his future was bright.

It was at that point that A J basically stopped writing science fiction and went off to Chicago to get into the public-relations business.


Well, I don’t know why. When A J took off for Chicago and a brief career as Mr. Pickle in a relish promoter’s PR campaign, it was a surprise to me. Perhaps it was because of the merciless difference between salary income and writer income that I alluded to earlier. By then the Budrys family census stood at six, with four healthy infant sons that needed to be fed every day — and would inevitably need more and more as the years advanced. But I lost touch with him for a year or two.

When I reconnected with him he had escaped from advertising and gone to work as the book editor for Playboy.

That made a certain amount of sense to me, particularly as he was showing signs of getting back to doing writing for me again. I was still editing for Bob Guinn, who had gradually enriched my expense account enough to permit annual trips to spur authors along . When in Chicago, I always spent some time with the Budryses. Their lives appeared to have slowed down and smoothed out.

But in that, too, I was quite wrong.

One day, back at home in New Jersey, I got a phone call from A J. He had news. The Church of Scientology had decided to honor their founder and principal sage, the science-fiction (and everything else, but best known for his science fiction) author L. Ron Hubbard, by establishing a new contest for talented entry-level sf writers that would pave the way for some of them to make the transition to professional success. Since none of the Scientology people knew much about publishing, they needed to find someone who did to save them from making too many blunders, and they had found A J.

“What I’m trying to do for them now,” he said, “is to try to find them major writers who —”

“No,” I said.

“— would be willing to be judges — what did you say?”

“I said, ‘no,'” I told him.

“But you didn’t let me tell you the good parts,” he said,

“That’s right,” I said. “I said, ‘no.’ ”

See how I handled it? A quick, firm decision, and then on to the next thing. No looking back, either.

Except that a few months later, when A J called again to tell me that Theodore Sturgeon, who A J had taken on as my replacement, was gravely ill, and A J was in a really tough spot, and if I could just help him out until he could find someone else. . . .

So I did it. I helped him out, and kept on doing it for the next thirty years.

In my defense, I will say that Writers of the Future, now broadened to include artists of the future, is indeed a good thing for beginning writers and artists, who can use all the help they can get. But there it is.

A J didn’t confine his efforts to Writers of the Future for the rest of his life. There was a prolonged, and expensive, period when he tried his luck as publisher of his own magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, but what happened at the end was simply that his health gave out. For the last several years of his life he was housebound in his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he complained that illness had so sapped his strength that he didn’t have energy for anything. Once he said, “There’s a novel I started in January and I’m not even a quarter through it.”

This was sometime in late spring. I said cheerfully, “So keep on plugging away. Sooner or later you’ll get it written.”

“Written?” he said, “I’m not talking about writing a novel. I’m talking about reading one.”

What was wrong with A J’s health was not a single, simple thing. I believe it was diabetes that kept him housebound for so long, but think it was metastasizing cancer that took him away in June of 2008.

He is missed.

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