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American Science Fiction, Classic Novels of the 1950's
Alfred Bester

My Affair with Science Fiction

I’m told that some science fiction readers complain that nothing is known about my private life. It’s not that I have anything to conceal; it’s simply the result of the fact that I’m reluctant to talk about myself because I prefer to listen to others talk about themselves. I’m genuinely interested, and also there’s always the chance of picking up something useful. The professional writer is a professional magpie.

Very briefly: I was born on Manhattan Island 18 December 1913, of a middle-class, hard-working family. I was born a Jew but the family had a laissez-faire attitude toward religion and let me pick my own faith for myself. I picked Natural Law. My father was raised in Chicago, always a raunchy town with no time for the God bit. Neither had he. My mother is a quiet Christian Scientist. When I do something that pleases her she nods and says, “Yes, of course. You were born in Science.” I used to make fun of her belief as a kid and we had some delightful arguments. We still do, while my father sits and smiles benignly. So my home life was completely liberal and iconoclastic.

I went to the last Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan (not preserved as a landmark) and to a beautiful new high school in the very peak of Washington Heights (now the scene of cruel racial conflicts). I went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where I made a fool of myself trying to become a Renaissance man. I refused to specialize and knocked myself out studying humanities and the scientific disciplines. I was a maladroit on the crew and football squads, but I was the most successful member of the fencing team.

I’d been fascinated with science fiction ever since Hugo Gernsback’s magazines first appeared on the stands. I suffered through the dismal years of space opera when science fiction was written by the hacks of pulp Westerns who merely translated Lazy X ranch into the Planet X and then wrote the same formula stories, using space pirates instead of cattle rustlers. I welcomed the glorious epiphany of John Campbell, whose Astounding brought about the Golden Age of science fiction.

Ah! Science fiction, science fiction. I’ve loved it since its birth. I’ve read it all my life, off and on, with excitement, with joy, sometimes with sorrow. Here’s a twelve-year-old kid, hungry for ideas and imagination, borrowing fairy tale collections from the library—The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, the Paisley Fairy Book—and smuggling them home under his jacket because he was ashamed to be reading fairy tales as his age. And then came Hugo Gernsback.

I read science fiction piecemeal in those days. I didn’t have much allowance so I couldn’t afford to buy the magazines. I would loaf at the newsstand outside the stationery store as though contemplating which magazine to buy. I would leaf through a science fiction magazine, reading rapidly, until the proprietor came out and chased me. A few hours later I’d return and continue where I’d been forced to leave off. There was one hateful kid in summer camp who used to receive the Amazing Quarterly in July. I was next in line and he was hateful because he was a slow reader.

It’s curious that I remember very few of the stories. The H. G. Wells imprints, to be sure, and the very first book I ever bought was a collection of Wells’ science fiction short stories. I remember “The Captured Cross Section,” which flabbergasted me with its arresting concept. I think I first read “Flatland by A. Square” as an Amazing imprint. I remember a cover for a novel titled, I think, The Second Deluge. It showed the survivors of the deluge in a sort of second ark gazing in awe at the peak of Mt. Everest now bared naked by the rains. The peak was a glitter of precious gems. I interviewed Sir Edmund Hillary in New Zealand a few years ago and he never said anything about diamonds and emeralds. That gives one furiously to think.

Through high school and college I continued to read science fiction but, as I said, with increasing frustration. The pulp era had set in and most of the stories were about heroes with names like “Brick Malloy” who were inspired to combat space pirates, invaders from other worlds, giant insects, and all the rest of the trash still being produced by Hollywood today. I remember a perfectly appalling novel about a Negro conspiracy to take over the world. These niggers, you see, had invented a serum which turned them white, so they could pass, and they were boring from within. Brick Malloy took care of those black bastards. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

There were a few bright moments. Who can forget the impact of Weinbaum’s “A Martian Fantasy”? That unique story inspired an entire vogue for quaint alien creatures in science fiction. “A Martian Fantasy” was one reason why I submitted my first story to Standard Magazines; they had published Weinbaum’s classic. Alas, Weinbaum fell apart and degenerated into a second-rate fantasy writer, and died too young to fulfill his original promise.

And then came Campbell, who rescued, elevated, gave meaning and importance to science fiction. It became a vehicle for ideas, daring, audacity. Why, in God’s name, didn’t he come first? Even today science fiction is still struggling to shake off its pulp reputation, deserved in the past but certainly not now. It reminds me of the exploded telegony theory; that once a thoroughbred mare has borne a colt by a non-thoroughbred sire she can never bear another thoroughbred again. Science fiction is still suffering from telegony.

Those happy golden days! I used to go to secondhand magazine stores and buy back copies of Astounding. I remember a hot July weekend when my wife was away working in a summer stock company and I spent two days thrilling to “Slan” and Heinlein’s “Universe”! What a concept, and so splendidly worked out with imagination and remorseless logic! Do you remember “The Destroyer”? Do you remember Lewis Padgett’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”? That was originally carried to the fifth power. Do you remember . . . But it’s no use. I could go on and on. The Blue, the Red, and the Paisley Fairy Books were gone forever.

After I graduated from the university I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. In retrospect I realize what I needed was a Wanderjahr, but such a thing was unheard of in the States at that time. I went to law school for a couple of years, just stalling, and to my surprise received a concentrated education which far surpassed that of my undergraduate years. After thrashing and loafing, to the intense pain of my parents who would have liked to see me settled in a career, I finally took a crack at writing a science fiction story, which I submitted to Standard Magazines. The story had the ridiculous title of “Diaz-X.”

Two editors on the staff, Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff, took an interest in me, I suspect mostly because I’d just finished reading and annotating Joyce’s Ulysses and would  preach it enthusiastically without provocation, to their great amusement. They told me what they had in mind. Thrilling Wonder was conducting a prize contest for the best story written by an amateur, and so far none of the submissions were worth considering. They thought “Diaz-X” might fill the bill if it was whipped into shape. They taught me how to revise the story into acceptable form and gave it the prize, $50. It was printed with the title, “The Broken Axiom.” They continued their professional guidance and I’ve never stopped being grateful to them.

I think I wrote perhaps a dozen acceptable science fiction stories in the next two years, all of them rotten, but I was without craft and experience and had to learn by trial and error. I’ve never been one to save things, I don’t even save my mss, but I hold on to the first four magazine covers on which my name appeared. Thrilling Wonder Stories (15 cents). On the lower left hand corner is printed “Slaves of the Life Ray, a startling novelette by Alfred Bester.” The feature story was “Trouble on Titan, A Gerry Carlyle Novel by Arthur K. Barnes.” Another issue had me down in the same bullpen, “The Voyage to Nowhere by Alfred Bester.” The most delightful item is my first cover story in Astonishing Stories (10 cents). “The Pet Nebula by Alfred Bester.” The cover shows an astonished young scientist in his laboratory being confronted by a sort of gigantic, radioactive seahorse. Damned if I can remember what the story was about.

Some other authors on the covers were: Neil R. Jones, J. Harvey Haggard, Ray Cummings (I remember that name), Harry Bates (his too), Kelvin Kent (sounds like a house name to me), E. E. Smith, Ph.D. (but of course), and Henry Kuttner with better billing than mine. He was in the left hand upper corner.

Mort Weisinger introduced me to the informal luncheon gatherings of the working science fiction authors of the late thirties. I met Henry Kuttner (who later became Lewis Padgett), Ed Hamilton, and Otto Binder, the writing half of Eando Binder. Eando was a sort of acronym of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder. E. and O. Earl died but Otto continued to use the well-known nom de plume. Malcolm Jameson, author of navy-oriented space stories, was there, tall, gaunt, prematurely grey, speaking in slow, heavy tones. Now and then be brought along his pretty daughter who turned everybody’s head.

The vivacious compère of those luncheons was Manley Wade Wellman, a professional Southerner full of regional anecdotes. It’s my recollection that one of his hands was slightly shriveled, which may have been why he came on so strong for the Confederate cause. We were all very patient with that; after all, our side won the war. Wellman was quite the man-of-the-world for the innocent thirties; he always ordered wine with his lunch.

Henry Kuttner and Otto Binder were medium sized young men, very quiet and courteous, and entirely without outstanding features. Once I broke Kuttner up quite unintentionally. I said to Weisinger, “I’ve just finished a wild story that takes place in a spaceless, timeless locale where there’s no objective reality. It’s awfully long, 20,000 words, but I can cut the first 5,000.” Kuttner burst out laughing. I do too when I think of the dumb kid I was. Once I said most earnestly to Jameson, “I’ve discovered a remarkable thing. If you combine two story lines into one the result can be tremendously exciting.” He stared at me with incredulity. “Haven’t you ever heard of plot and counterplot?” he growled. I hadn’t. I discovered it all by myself.

Being brash and the worst kind of intellectual snob, I said privately to Weisinger that I wasn’t much impressed by these writers who were supplying most of the science fiction for the magazines, and asked him why they received so many assignments. He explained, “They may never write a great story but never write a bad one. We know we can depend on them.” Having recently served my time as a magazine editor I now understand exactly what he meant.

When the comic book explosion burst, my two magi were lured away from Standard Magazines by the Superman Group. There was a desperate need for writers to provide scenarios (Wellman nicknamed them “squinkas”) for the artists, so Weisinger and Schiff drafted me as one of their writers. I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to write a comic book script, but one rainy Saturday afternoon Bill Finger, the star comics writer of the time, took me in hand and gave me, a potential rival, an incisive, illuminating lecture on the craft. I still regard that as a high point in the generosity of one colleague to another.

I wrote comics for three or four years with increasing expertise and success. Those were wonderful days for a novice. Squinkas were expanding, there was a constant demand for stories, you could write three and four a week and experiment while learning your craft. The scripts were usually an odd combination of science fiction and “Gangbusters.” To give you some idea of what they were like, here’s a typical script conference with an editor I’ll call Chuck Migg, dealing with a feature I’ll call “Captain Hero.” Naturally, both are fictitious. The dialogue isn’t.

 

“Now listen,” Miggs says, “I called you down because we got to do something about Captain Hero.”

“What’s your problem?”

“The book is closing next week and we’re thirteen pages short. That’s a whole lead story. We got to work one out now.”

“Any particular slant?”

“Nothing special, except maybe two things. We got to be original and we got to be realistic. No more fantasy.”

“Right.”

“So give.”

“Wait a minute, for Christ’s sake. What d’you think I am, Saroyan?”

Two minutes of intense concentration, then Miggs says, “How about this? A mad scientist invents a machine for making people go fast. So crooks steal it and hop themselves up. Get it? They move so fast they can rob a bank in a split second.”

“No.”

“We open a splash panel showing money and jewelry disappearing with wiggly lines and—why no?”

“It’s a steal from H. G. Wells.”

“But it’s still original.”

“Anyway, it’s too fantastic. I thought you said we were going to be realistic.”

“Sure I said realistic but that don’t mean we can’t be imaginative. What we have to—”

“Wait a minute. Hold the phone.”

“Got a flash?”

“Maybe. Suppose we begin with a guy making some kind of experiment. He’s a scientist but not mad. This is a straight, sincere guy.”

“Gotcha. He’s making an experiment for the good of humanity. Different narrative hook.”

“We’ll have to use some kind of rare earth metal; cerium, maybe, or—”

“No, let’s go back to radium. We ain’t used it in the last three issues.”

“All right, radium. The experiment is a success. He brings a dead dog back to life with his radium serum.”

“I’m waiting for the twist.”

“The serum gets into his blood. From a loveable scientist he turns into a fiend.”

At this point Miggs takes fire. “I got it! I got it! We’ll make like King Midas. This doc is a sweet guy. He’s just finished an experiment that’s gonna bring eternal life to mankind. So he takes a walk in his garden and smells a rose. Blooie! The rose dies. He feeds the birds. Wham! The birds plotz. So how does Captain Hero come in?”

“Well, maybe we can make it Jekyll and Hyde here. The doctor doesn’t want to be a walking killer. He knows there’s a rare medicine that’ll neutralize the radium in him. He has to steal it from hospitals and that brings Captain Hero around to investigate.”

“Nice human interest.”

“But here’s the next twist. The doctor takes a shot of the medicine and thinks he’s safe. Then his daughter walks into the lab and when he kisses her she dies. The medicine won’t cure him any more.”

By now Miggs is in orbit. “I got it! I got it! First we run a caption: IN THE LONELY LABORATORY A DREADFUL CHANGE TORTURES DR.—whatever his name is—HE IS NOW DR. RADIUM ! ! ! Nice name, huh?”

“Okay.”

“Then we run a few panels showing him turning green and smashing stuff and he screams: THE MEDICINE CAN NO LONGER SAVE ME! THE RADIUM IS EATING INTO MY BRAIN ! ! I’M GOING MAD. HA-HA-HA ! ! ! How’s that for real drama?”

“Great.”

“Okay. That takes care of the first three pages. What happens with Dr. Radium in the next ten?”

“Straight action finish. Captain Hero tracks him down. He traps Captain Hero in something lethal. Captain Hero escapes and traps Dr. Radium and knocks him off a cliff or something.”

“No. Knock him into a volcano.”

“Why?”

“So we can bring Dr. Radium back for a sequel. He really packs a wallop. We could have him walking through walls and stuff on account of the radium in him.”

“Sure.”

“This is gonna be a great character, so don’t rush the writing. Can you start today? Good. I’ll send a messenger up for it tomorrow.”

 

The great George Burns, bemoaning the death of vaudeville, once said, “There just ain’t no place for kids to be lousy anymore.” The comics gave me an ample opportunity to get a lot of lousy writing out of my system.

The line “ . . . knocks him off a cliff or something” has particular significance. We had very strict self-imposed rules about death and violence. The Good Guys never deliberately killed. They fought, but only with their fists. Only villains used deadly weapons. We could show death coming—a character falling off the top of a high building Aiggghhh!—and we could show the result of death—a body, but always face down. We could never show the moment of death; never a wound, never a rictus, no blood, at the most a knife protruding from the back. I remember the shock that ran through the Superman office when Chet Gould drew a bullet piercing the forehead of a villain in Dick Tracy.

We had other strict rules. No cop could be crooked. They could be dumb but they had to be honest. We disapproved of Raymond Chandler’s corrupt police. No mechanical or scientific device could be used unless it had a firm foundation in fact. We used to laugh at the outlandish gadgets that Bob Kane invented (he wrote his own squinkas as a rule) for Batman and Robin which, among ourselves, we called Batman and Rabinowitz. Sadism was absolutely taboo; no torture scenes, no pain scenes. And, of course, sex was completely out.

Holiday tells a great story about George Horace Lorrimer, the awesome editor-in-chief of the Saturday Evening Post, our sister magazine. He did a very daring thing for his time. He ran a novel in two parts and the first installment ended with the girl bringing the boy back to her apartment at midnight for coffee and eggs. The second installment opened with them having breakfast together in her apartment the following morning. Thousands of indignant letters came in and Lorrimer had a form reply printed “the Saturday Evening Post is not responsible for the behavior of its characters between installments.” Presumably our comic book heroes lived normal lives between issues; Batman getting bombed and chasing ladies into bed, Rabinowitz burning down his school library in protest against something.

I was married by then and my wife was an actress. One day she told me that the radio show, Nick Carter, was looking for scripts. I took one of my best comic book stories, translated it into a radio script and it was accepted. Then my wife told me that a new show, Charlie Chan, was having script problems. I did the same thing with the same result. By the end of the year I was the regular writer on those two shows and branching out to The Shadow and others. The comic book days were over, but the splendid training I received in visualization, attack, dialogue, and economy stayed with me forever. The imagination must come from within; no one can teach you that. The ideas must come from without, and I’d better explain that.

Usually, ideas don’t come to you out of nowhere; they require a compost heap for germination, and the compost is diligent preparation. I spent many hours a week in the reading rooms of the New York public library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. I read everything and anything with magpie attention for a possible story idea; art frauds, police methods, smuggling, psychiatry, scientific research, color dictionaries, music, demography, biography, plays . . . the list is endless. I’d been forced to develop a speed-reading technique in law school and averaged a dozen books per session. I thought that one potential idea per book was a reasonable return. All that material went into my Commonplace Book for future use. I’m still using it and still adding to it.

 

And so for the next four or