As I mentioned in the short piece I wrote about Alfie Bester, he and I had a joint talk for a bunch of English fans thirty-odd years or so ago. To my total amazement, some of them recently came up with a tape of that discussion. They transcribed it, and I thought some of you might like to read it here in the blog.
Here’s what Peter Roberts’ fanzine, Checkpoint, reported at the time:
TYNESIDE “FUTUREWORLDS”: (Ritchie Smith reports on the Newcastle sf film festival) “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl spoke at the Tyneside Cinema for some two hours on June 26th. Bester was smallish, plump, larger-than-life, and explosively friendly in a Hollywood sort of way, right down to calling some people ‘darling’. Pohl looked more literary: ectomorphic, tall, and restrained, full of good anecdotes, like Bester (sadly, too many of them were familiar from Pohl’s essay in Hell’s Cartographers). Afterwards they signed books — Bester’s dedications were especially witty — and the great men and a large minority of North-East fandom went off for a Chinese meal.”
Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation
Recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, by Kevin Williams. Transcript by Sue Williams, edited by Neil Jones and Kevin Williams. Originally published in Rob Jackson’s fanzine Inca 5, December 2009. Additional editing here by Leah A. Zeldes.
Pohl: Let me tell you about Alfie Bester. I’ve known him for a long time, and I first encountered him when I was 19 years old and editing a magazine called Astonishing Stories, and I bought a couple of stories of Alfie’s because I liked them. And then, some years later, Cyril Kornbluth and I had written a book called The Space Merchants, which I sort of hoped might win a prize, but it was beaten out by something called The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.
A little while later, Cyril and I were working on another novel — I think it was Search the Sky. We’d written a couple of others by then, and I’d just begun to edit a thing called Star Science Fiction Stories — a series of anthologies of original science fiction stories. I brought home a story by Alfie Bester that I had just accepted for Star. It was called “Disappearing Act,” and I showed it to Cyril while we were working on our own book.
He gave me a resentful look and said, “You bring me this to read when we are writing that!”
[The novel we were writing was pretty much space opera, while Alfie's story was a literate gem. But I didn't explain this in the conversation, which led to a mixup. —FP]
Bester: Cyril didn’t like it?
Pohl: He loved it. He thought it was so much superior to what we were doing that it embarrassed him.
It’s been going on like that — our paths keep crossing, and he keeps doing this superlative work, and now I’ll let him speak for himself.
Bester: The one thing that you must understand is that we admire each other profoundly. I cannot tell you how many times I have read a story or novel of Fred’s and said, “Why in Christ’s name couldn’t I have written that?” — and then run into Fred and I tell him. The truth of the matter is that there is no rivalry between us at all, there is nothing but admiration.
We are rather like the high baroque musicians: We borrow from each other, we learn from each other, we admire each other, we do the same things, or different things, and have a hell of a ball.
Now Fred’s novel which he wrote with Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is, I think, the finest novel ever written in the history of science fiction. It is a brilliant piece of work. Many brilliant things have followed it, but this came along when everybody was obsessed with Doc Smith space opera, which has its own charm — it’s great fun — and suddenly comes this realistic extrapolation of what American life, American advertising, American ecology and American psychosis will lead to eventually.
Horace Gold ran it as a three parter in Galaxy. Gravy Planet, he called it. A tremendous piece of work — exciting, ravishing. I will never forget the scene where that crazy broad with the needle is giving him the works. Fred, that was outrageously brilliant.
Pohl: That scene was all Cyril’s but I’ll accept the credit.
Alfie is one of the greatest writers science fiction has ever had and he is well aware of it — he just wants to be told! Everybody knows the novels, but there was a period in the early ’50s when in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction month after month there was a leading novelette by Alfred Bester.
Bester: Always with the wrong title!
Pohl: Always with the wrong title but always good! They were just brilliant, one after another.
Bester: I once sent two stories to Mick McComas and Tony Boucher (at F&SF) — they had asked for them, of course — and they switched the titles on the stories. I stink on titles, I really do, I’m terrible.
But the point I’m going to make very strongly is the greatness of science fiction. To my mind, it is the last, the last outpost of freedom of literature in the States — I can’t speak for England. In science fiction, we can do what no one else can do in any other medium.
I speak as a magazine writer, novelist and scriptwriter. The constraints of commercial fiction in the States in television, in films, in radio, you name it, are so severe that there is very little you can do. This is one of the reasons why I have written science fiction off and on all of my life. Quite simply because if I come up with an idea which rather enchants me, I would very much like to develop it and do it, so that people would see it and hear it.
If my producer, my director, the client says “No, no, it’s too expensive, no it’s too far out, people won’t understand it, ah forget it, give us something a little less,” then I have to turn to science fiction. In science fiction, you can do anything you please, and God knows the artist needs a free hand. The greatness of science fiction is not the science, not the prediction of the future, not anything you want to name — the greatness is that it is wide open, and we can do exactly as we damn please, and that story will run somewhere, somehow, and you will have your audience, and you will get feedback. And after all, a writer without an audience is no writer at all; you’ve got to have people that you are entertaining.