Posts tagged ‘Richard Wilson’

 

Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Jack Robins

Jack Robins
 

 
Guest Post By Jack Robins

I recall many things about Robert W. Lowndes, how soft-spoken he was, how much he enjoyed studying old science fiction stories, and how warm and friendly he was.

I remember one time, when John Michel, Don Wollheim, Lowndes and I were in a bar each drinking something. Lowndes ordered a white wine, I believe it was Sauternes. He took a sip and let the small amount of fluid roll over his tongue to relish the flavor and he held it there for a long while before swallowing. He told me the only way to appreciate wine was to sip it slowly and savor the flavor. I now think that was just rationalization for not having sufficient funds to order a second glass. But at the time I was so impressed by his sophistication that for a long time, the only wines I preferred to drink were white wines and I would try to make the flavor last in my mouth a long time. Many years later, I mentioned this incident to Robert but he said he could not remember it.

Once after a meeting, when we were about to go to our respective homes, Robert surprised me by saying he wanted to go home with me. I was hesitant. My parents had no phone at the time so I could not ask my mother if it would be all right. “I have to,” he told me. “I have no place to sleep tonight.” That did it. I said, “Sure.”

When we got to my home and I explained things to my mother, she accepted Robert and fed us dinner. The apartment was rather small. There was one big bedroom, no privacy. Normally I slept alone on a full sized bed on one side of the bedroom and my father and mother shared the bed on the other side. So that night Robert and I had to sleep in my bed. There was no other room. I slept well but I don’t know how Robert fared. The following morning my mother fed us a good breakfast.

Always, whenever I went to meet with the Futurians, I had to go to Michel’s house, and later on to the apartment they shared. No one had ever come to my house. Now, having a fellow Futurian visit me at my home, sharing my food and even my bed, made me feel good. Worrying about Robert, I asked him did he want to spend another night at my house.

He said, “Absolutely not.” I asked him why. He said, “Isn’t it obvious?” He would not give any details. I did not press him to find out whether it was because of the lack of privacy, the forced sharing of my bed, the single bathroom, or the poverty he observed. But I was glad to have helped him out that one night.

Lowndes used to regale us with quotes from early science fiction stories. He would stand before us and read paragraphs from stories in old magazines from his or Don Wollheim’s collection, and we would groan at what we thought was bad writing. One such story that drove us to loud laughter involved a manlike robot that was the house servant. When providing refreshment, the robot was asked by a visitor to join him in a drink. The robot declined, stating, “The drink affects the delicate enamel of my teeth and once that is gone, the rest soon follows.” This sentence was repeated so many times in the story that I doubt any of us listeners could ever forget it. We thought that the robot was the only thing of merit in the story. It was not made clear whether the robot was referring to the effect of sugar on the teeth and that once the protective enamel was gone, the rest of the teeth soon followed, or whether, as Lowndes believed, considering what the robot was made of, once the enamel was gone, the rest of the robot would also deteriorate and vanish.

In those early days, we were often fond of walking long distances around Flatbush, Brooklyn, finally ending up in an ice cream parlor or candy store for sodas. The basic group included: Wollheim, Michel, Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and me. Occasionally Dick Wilson would join us. We continued this ritual even after Michel, Wollheim, Kornbluth and Lowndes had decided to room together in the first apartment they jointly rented.

During each of these walks, Kornbluth would relate a shaggy dog story. It was about an unemployed, destitute man who sees an ad in a paper left on a park bench, offering a huge reward for a lost shaggy dog. Just then he sees a huge shaggy dog ambling about and becomes convinced this was the one that was lost. He grabs the dog and endeavors to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, he meets up with many difficult and life-threatening obstacles on the way to returning the dog and finally, his clothes in rags, many cuts and bruises all over his face and body, he rings the doorbell of the dog’s owner. A man, obviously a butler, regards him while sniffing snobbishly and asks what he wanted. “I’ve found your shaggy dog and I’ve come for the reward,” our hero says. The butler looks at it with disdain and says, “It’s not that shaggy,” and slams the door on the man. It was a pointless and unappealing story, but the fun was in inventing the obstacles that faced the hero.

Each time we took the walk, Cyril Kornbluth would tell this story in his deep melodious voice that made each word sound like a pronouncement of doom. At every rendition, Cyril’s imagination would fly through fantastic difficulties that had us laughing despite the morbid character of the story. In Cyril’s inventiveness, the hero might struggle with someone and get a black eye or two, or he might get hit by a truck and end up in the hospital, or something else would happen to him before he could return the dog. Each time he repeated the story it had a different set of obstacles. Cyril’s vivid imagination was impressive.

One day, Kornbluth couldn’t be with us. Robert took over the telling and let his own imagination take rein. His soft, pleasant version was not as predictive of doom as Kornbluth’s, but his imagination was just as effective. I realize now that those storytelling incidents were training for later authorhood.

After the group had obtained the apartment they shared, we would occasionally go to a Chinese restaurant some blocks away and order our evening meal. We were all poor and could not afford anything sumptuous. Imagine a ceramic bowl six or seven inches in diameter, about an inch and a quarter high, filled with such recipes as fried rice or chow mein or chop suey, all for 25¢, including dessert. To us this was the height of extravagance, and during the time we were eating we felt wealthy and that we were eating like the super rich.

One day in late March, during the period when Lowndes was publishing the fanzine Science Fiction Weekly, I urged Robert to put out an April Fool’s issue. He was very reluctant. He depended upon paid subscribers to finance the publishing plus a little money for himself, and he was also beholden to various sources who revealed to him all the latest happenings in the science fiction field that he could publish. If he issued an April Fool’s issue, his subscribers might feel cheated or he might offend the ones who supplied his material. Finally I convinced him that issuing an extra April Fool’s supplement and naming it Science Fiction Weakly would do him no harm and the readers might even appreciate it. The issue he finally prepared was one page, two columns on each side of the page, each column being a single article of about 300 words. I wrote up three humorous articles, taking up three of the columns and someone else wrote the fourth. I don’t know how many of the readers took to the April Fool’s issue, but since Robert was still publishing the paper thereafter, I guess they must have been amused.

 
To be continued.
 

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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’ »

Cyril Begins to Blossom

His Share of Glory by C.M. Kornbluth

When Cyril’s bad luck dumped him into the Infantry just when Hitler caught the American Army with their pants down in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a machine-gunner. What happened with him in that worrisome period before Patton, plus thousands of fresh reserves, kicked Hitler’s troops back into Germany I don’t know, because Cyril refused to talk about it. The end result, though, was that he got two things from that period of service. One was a Bronze Star. The other was a bad case of what they called severe essential hypertension, which was Army talk for heart trouble.

For a time after the war Cyril dealt with that situation by ignoring it. At some point he had married Mary G. Byers, the Ohio femmefan he had smuggled into New York City over the efforts of the uncle who, as her guardian, had done everything he could to prevent it. When Cyril’s draft number came up (I believe from things Cyril said), they were married.

While Cyril was serving in Europe, Mary was (again, I understand) alone, and not doing well. I believe that was when her drinking problem first surfaced; but when Cyril came home, he entered the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and, at least for a time, things went well for both of them, especially after he took on a part-time job working for the newswire service, Transradio Press.

That job he got by invitation of our mutual old Futurian friend, Dick Wilson, who got there a little earlier than Cyril and had already become head of Transradio’s Chicago Bureau. (I must write something about Transradio some time, because it loved hiring Futurians, including, occasionally, me. But not now.)

Cyril had stopped by New York before moving on to Chicago, and he and I had kept in contact. I was then operating the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, helping Dirk to make it a career (his own war injuries having made it impossible for him to hold a normal job.) When Cyril began writing, and selling, an occasional postwar sf story again, I coaxed him to do more.

He ultimately gave in, quit Transradio (and quit the university too) and moved back east. I think, again from things Cyril said, that part of the reason for leaving Chicago was because Mary was involved in some drinking there. I know (from Mary herself) that Cyril tried really hard to help her quit, including some pretty harsh measures.

He and Mary set up housekeeping near where I was living with my family in Red Bank, New Jersey. For the next few years Cyril-the-writer was not only vastly productive but getting better and better at it, almost by the day. That’s when he was producing such winners as “The Luckiest Man in Denv,” “The Silly Season,” “The Little Black Bag” and many more. Cyril had a nearly in-born gift for graceful writing and excellent spot-on characterization. His only real weakness was in plotting. By then he had taught himself — maybe with a little help from those Futurian writing orgies — plot structure for short stories and, soon thereafter, novelettes and novellas. Some of his work from that period I would match against almost anybody’s best stories ever, including “The Marching Morons,” “Two Dooms” and a good many others. (The intelligent folks at NESFA have put all those stories in a single volume, entitled His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth.) None of them won any Hugos or Nebulae. The reason was just some of Cyril’s bad luck. The awards hadn’t been invented yet.

Apart from the writing, Cyril’s life was unusually ordinary — that is to say, mostly quite apparently happy in those years. He and Mary shared many interests, not least the two sons, John and David, that Mary gave him in those years. Fatherhood, I must say, revealed a side of Cyril that I had not suspected to exist. He was an archetypal proud papa, he worried seriously when John developed some problems that none of their doctors seemed able to cope with (but which, apparently, the boy ultimately outgrew). From outside, even a quite close outside, the ultimate cynic seemed to have transmuted himself into a perfectly normal young married.

There was one small puzzle. One time when he and I were in my car, on the way to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, our conversation got much more than usually personal. And when, leaping from earlier remarks between us, I asked Cyril what he would most like to change about himself, he clenched his teeth and, “I wish I were less cruel.”

I didn’t ask him any questions about that remark, but I did give it a lot of thought for a long time.

More coming along as soon as I find time to write it.

 
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The conclusion of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Audience: What’s it like to start writing the next book after you have written, say, The Demolished Man?

Bester: I’ve just finished a book about a month ago and I’m absolutely pooped — there’s nothing left. It happens with me when I’ve finished something big like a novel. Not a script — with a script or a short story, next week you write another one. But with a book, I’m exhausted.

Now at my advanced age I know better — I leave it alone and the next thing I know, a few weeks, a couple of months maybe, an idea begins to niggle me and the next thing I know I’m beginning to dream and think about it. Who’s as surprised as me when there’s something in my head and there’s my legal pad, and a book is formed? You just have to wait for the battery to recharge. I just wait patiently and it starts all over again. There are so many ideas that one has.

I may think, “Ah yes, there’s that play that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time and I’m going to start on that play,” and the next thing I know it’s going to turn into a novel. You don’t know what will happen — you’re constantly surprised.

Pohl: You’re a much more organized person than I am. I don’t work on one thing at a time. I usually have eight or 10 projects going at one time. I work on one until I’m bored, and don’t know what to do next. Then I put it away and work on another. So the point never really comes where I have to say this day I start from scratch with something new, but each day, to the extent possible with the vicissitudes of travel or something, I do some writing!

Every day. I find that sometimes it gets a little treacherous though because I want to write the same scene in three different novels. There are two novels that I’m working on now and I’ve got a great scene and I want it in both of them.

Bester: I’ve stolen scenes from myself many a time and been ashamed.

Audience: Do you consider the increasing commercialism of science fiction will have a detrimental effect on the future?

Pohl: The increasing commercialism of science fiction has worried me sometimes because it seems to me that the prices have got pretty high and it’s a sort of South Sea Bubble thing that is going to bust before long. But I don’t think it’ll affect any writer seriously. Writers that are good enough to command the sky-high prices that are going on, especially science-fiction writers, are generally also so damn stubborn that they’re going to do what they want to do anyhow. And not too many of the first-rank writers that I know are going to worry about commercialism. They will do their thing.

From time to time I’ve flirted with things like television where you can’t really do your thing unless you have a commanding position and have spent 20 years earning it, but I don’t want to do that, even though I could make much more money and reach a wider audience. It’s not my thing. And most of the writers I know will not do what they don’t want to do, no matter what sort of money is about.

Bester: I agree completely. I do an occasional science-fiction special, but I can’t write for any of the standard shows. The coast — Hollywood — is impossible.

There’s a little gag: What is a camel? A camel is a horse designed by a committee. Out on the coast, it is all committee work.

Pohl: Yes, all these people have to justify their salaries by having an opinion! If they don’t have an opinion, they’re fired.

Bester: Which they impose on you. I’m all kinds of author, but I’ve never yet written anything in which I’ve not been in complete control. And I just will not put up with committee work.

Audience: Another person who comes to mind as somebody who has tried very hard to do his own thing within the framework of media work is Harlan Ellison!

Pohl: Harlan does his own thing. Harlan chooses for reasons not known to me to flagellate himself by going back and writing episodes of The Flying Nun from time to time. Why he does this I don’t really know; he doesn’t need the money.

Bester: Harlan did a Star Trek script and it was the one good script that they had. Harlan’s a marvelous writer, there’s no doubt about it.

Pohl: The reason I don’t get involved in film and top TV, is neither that I’m allergic to money nor above that sort of thing. It’s just that I don’t want to deal with all those people. One maniac editor is all that I can handle at one time; 27 lunatic network executives would just drive me insane.

AD: But Fred, now you’ve achieved enough clout to get away with it.

Pohl: I can get away with it until they come back and say, “NBC loves your idea but they won’t allow you to do what you said you want to do.” And then I walk away.

A couple of years ago, I was coming to Los Angeles and my Hollywood agent called me up and said: “When you come, I’ve got somebody for you to meet. He’s a producer and he wants you to write a script for him.”

And I said: “What kind of script?”

“It’s a Japanese monster movie!”

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 8: Hollywood and the Name Game’ »

The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

After World War II had grabbed most of us Futurians by the scruff of the necks and flung us to various odd destinations in all sorts of unexpected parts of this planet of ours, it did, somehow get itself ended and there we were, civilians again, and back in New York. I had had a relatively undemanding war, ending up with doing public relations at the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in Caserta, Italy (with my spare time spent in a resort hotel on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius). Dirk Wylie, however, hadn’t had anywhere nearly as nice a war as I did.

Dirk’s war hit bottom in the early winter of 1944–45. That was when Hitler’s Wehrmacht made one last attempt to take back control of the western front in the Battle of the Bulge. It was a vicious and protracted fight, and Dirk, then an MP sergeant, was in the middle of it. This cost him. At one point, he jumped hastily out of a truck and landed in a very wrong way, doing something seriously bad to his spine.

That was the end of the war for Dirk, and the beginning of years of hospital stays and unremitting pain.

By the late 1940s, he was discharged from the New York-area Veterans Administration hospitals — not because he was cured but because there was nothing more they could do for him. Now Dirk was a civilian again, with one unanswerable question: What was he to do with the rest of his life? A normal nine-to-five job of any kind was pure fantasy. The only good part of the situation was that he didn’t need to make much money. The Veterans Administration had recognized their obligation to him and awarded him a substantial pension. But a living wage wasn’t the whole of Dirk’s needs. He was just barely out of his twenties, and didn’t like the prospect of doing nothing for the rest of his life.

I spent a lot of time with Dirk and his wife, Roz, discussing that question, and we came up with an idea that seemed worth pursuing. He could become a literary agent.

 
There are all kinds of literary agents. Some of them can do very good things for their clients, making sales for them that the writers would not have made by themselves and sometimes acting as story coaches to help their clients write more salable material. Others (as my mother used to say when totally exasperated) are not worth the powder to blow them to Hell.

So what made the difference between the saviors and the total wastes? One, a good agent needed to know the market. Two, s/he needed to know good work from bad. Three, s/he needed to be able to let clients know how to tell the difference between good and bad, too, and how to encourage them to get better.

Of course, Dirk didn’t have personal knowledge of all these things, although, as a Futurian, he had been exposed to a fair amount of shop talk over the years and had made a few sales himself. But what he did have was me.

Continue reading ‘How I Lost My Oldest Friend
(and Gained a Literary Agency)’ »

Wonder Stories, April 1933

I don’t know what kind of a writer I would have been if I hadn’t met Dirk Wylie and, through him and with him, the whole world of science-fiction fandom. Much the same, I imagine. I almost certainly would have been some kind of a writer — I’m hardly fit for anything else. And I had been trying to write sf at least a year before I met Dirk, in idle moments in classes in the eighth grade. But it would have taken a lot longer.

I owe a lot to fandom. From Don Wollheim, John Michel, Doc Lowndes — and later from Cyril Kornbluth, Dick Wilson, Isaac Asimov and others — I learned something about what they were learning about writing; we all showed each other our stories, when we weren’t actually collaborating on them. In the fan mags, I acquired the skills necessary to prepare something for public viewing — and the courage to permit it.

What I am not as sure of is whether all the things we learned then were worth learning.

Science fiction was purely a pulp category in those days. Sometimes the emphasis was on gadgetry, sometimes on blood-and-thunder adventure; when it was best, the high spots were vistas of new worlds and new kinds of life. In no case was it on belles-lettres, nor was it a place to look for fresh insights into the human condition. What we learned from each other and from the world around us was the hardware of writing. Narrative hooks. Time-pressure to make a story move. Character tags — not characterization, but oddities, quirks, bits of business to make a person in a story not alive but identifiable. So I learned how to invent ray-guns and how to make a story march, but it was not for a long, long time that I began to try to learn how to use a story to say something that needed saying.

In fact, when I look back at the science-fiction magazines of the twenties and the early thirties, the ones that hooked me on sf, I sometimes wonder just what it was we all found in them to shape our lives around.

I think there were two things. One is that science fiction was a way out of a bad place; the other, that it was a window on a better one.

The world really was in bad trouble. Money trouble. The Great Depression was not just a few million people out of work or a thousand banks gone shaky. It was fear. And it was worldwide. Somehow or other the economic life of the human race had got itself off the tracks. No one was quite sure it would get straight again. No one could be sure that his own life was not going to be disastrously changed, and science fiction offered an escape from all that.

The other thing about the world was that technology had just begun to make itself a part of everyone’s life. Every day there were new miracles. Immense new buildings. Giant airships. Huge ocean liners. Man flew across the Atlantic and circled the South Pole. Cars went faster, tunnels went deeper, the Empire State Building stretched a fifth of a mile into the sky, radio brought you the voice of a singer a continent away.

It was clear that behind all this growth and acceleration something was happening, and that it would not stop happening with huge Zeppelins and giant buildings but would go on and on. What science fiction was about was the going on. The next step, and the step after that. Not just radio, but television. Not just the conquest of the air, but the conquest of space.

Of course, not even science fiction was telling us much about the price tag on progress. It told us about the future of the automobile; it didn’t tell us that sulphur-dioxide pollution would crumble the stone in the buildings that lined the streets. It told us about high-speed aircraft, but not about sonic boom; about atomic energy, but not about fallout; about organ transplants and life prolongation, but not about the dreary agony of overpopulation.

Nobody else was telling us about these things, either. A decade or two later science fiction picked up on the gloom behind the glamour very quickly, and maybe too completely. But in those early days we were as innocent as physicists, popes and presidents. We saw only the promise, not the threat.

And truthfully we weren’t looking for threats. We were looking for beauty and challenge. When we couldn’t find them on Earth, we looked outside for prettier, more satisfying places. Mars. Venus. The made-up planets of invented stars somewhere off in the middle of the galaxy, or in galaxies farther away still.

I think we all believed as an article of faith that there were other intelligent races in the universe than our own, plenty of them. (I still believe it! What puzzles me is why we haven’t seen any of them as visitors. I wish I could swallow the flying-saucer stories — I can’t; the evidence just isn’t good. But the absence of hard facts hasn’t shaken my faith that Osnomians and Fenachrone are out there somewhere.) If polled, I am sure we would have agreed that wherever there’s a planet, there’s life — or used to be, or will be.

Now, alas, we know that the odds are not as good as we had hoped, especially for our own solar system. The local real estate is pretty low quality. Mercury is too hot and has too little air; Venus is too hot and has too much, and poisonous at that. Mars is still a possibility, but not by any means a good one — and what else is there? But in the mid-thirties we didn’t know as much as we do now. The big telescopes hadn’t yet been completed, and of course no spaceship had yet brought a TV camera to Mars or the Moon.

But we believed.

 
Stay tuned. . . .

 
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