Conversations with Dead Science Fiction Writers

While writing this installment, I learned of the passing of Martin H. Greenberg, science fiction’s most prolific anthologist. I never met Greenberg, but like many people I’ve never met in science fiction, I felt like I knew him, both through his own work, as well as through the voices of those who had worked with him, or who had been friends with him. It made me think about all of the science fiction writers I never got to meet, and what we might have discussed had a meeting been possible.Here is a list of six science fiction people that I wish I could have met. They are listed alphabetically by last name.

  • Isaac Asimov. Asimov is one of my favorite writers. I enjoy his fiction and nonfiction equally, although I will admit to a preference to his nonfiction. His Foundation series is one of my all-time favorites. If I’d had the opportunity to meet with him late in his life, I think I might have asked him how he might have concluded that series. After Foundation and Earth, he didn’t know where the series was going and so he went ahead and wrote two prequels. I wonder if he ever figured out what came after Foundation and Earth?

  • John W. Campbell. I picture Campbell as an ageless editor, but in fact, I am now nearly a decade older than he was at the dawn of the Golden Age of science fiction. Prior to becoming editor of Astounding, Campbell was a fabulous writer in his own right. Writing under the pseudonym, Don A. Stuart, he wrote “Who Goes There?” which is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time. Fans loved his writing and clamored for more Stuart stories in the letter columns of Astounding (not knowing that Campbell was Stuart). But Campbell wrote that Stuart was retired. Why? If I could have met Campbell late in his life, I’d ask him why he gave up writing to become an editor. Clearly he was talented at both. As a writer myself, it is hard to imagine ever giving it up. So why did Campbell decide to do it?
  • Judy-Lynn del Rey (Benjamin). Most of my descriptions of Judy-Lynn come from what others wrote of her. She was an editor at Galaxy and eventually went on to become the science fiction editor at Del Rey books. I’ve heard her described as being one of the most well-read, knowledgeable people in all of science fiction. If I could have met her, she seems like the kind of person you could just sit down with an talk about science fiction: the stories, the writers, the art form, all of it. Imagine what kind of behind-the-scenes-history could be uncovered in a conversation like that!
  • Lester del Rey. Like Campbell, del Rey is another writer who ultimately gave up writing to become an editor–and eventually a leading fantasy editor. With his wife, Judy-Lynn, they became the team that made up the Del Rey imprint, which from the start in the 1970s was phenomenally successful. I liked most of del Rey’s earlier stories, but one of his stories in particularly–“The Day Is Done” (Astounding, May 1939) is one of my all-time favorites. If I could, I would love to sit down with del Rey and talk about that story.
  • L. Ron Hubbard. These days many people both in and out of science fiction associate Hubbard with Dianetics and Scientology. But he was a pretty darn good pulp writer and his serial, Final Blackout in the April-June 1940 Astounding was the finest story printed in the magazine that year. But I must admit, if I could meet Hubbard, it would be to ask about the invention of Dianetics. There is a famous story (possibly apocryphal) that talks about the invention of Dianetics at a Hydra Club meeting (or some such place). Many science fiction writers were alleged to be at the meeting. Hubbard complained that no matter how much you wrote, you simply couldn’t make a living at a penny a word. Someone in the room (in the version I heard, it was attributed to Lester del Rey) suggested that the best way to make a buck was to start a religion. Was this how it really went down, I would want to ask Hubbard?
  • C. L. Moore. Moore was the collaborator and wife of Henry Kuttner. From the first story I read of hers, “Greater Than Gods”, which appeared in the July 1939 Astounding, I found her to be a phenomenal writer. She went on to write other stunning stories, by herself and in collaboration with Kuttner. When she started, she was writing at a time when women barely appeared in the pulp science fiction magazines, and yet her stories were often more powerful than the other stories that appeared. (In that July 1939 Astounding were stories by two other soon-to-be famous writers: Asimov and van Vogt; and yet Moore’s story was far better than both of their stories.) If I could talk to her, I’d wonder about what struggles she had (if any) breaking into the field as a woman. Did she see the science fiction world as a boys club?

My list is clearly a list of older writers from back in the day. This isn’t because I think their writing is particularly better than writers today, but mostly because it is what I grew up with. And these questions have lingered in my mind over the years.

If you could have met some dearly departed science fiction or fantasy writers–no matter where or when they lived–who would you choose? What would you want to ask them, if you could share a beer with them in some quiet corner of a convention bar, late at night when the rest of the fans and writers have finally succumbed to sleep?

11 thoughts on “Conversations with Dead Science Fiction Writers”

  1. Conversation with Dead Career SF Writer: John Norman

    All I would have to say is, “See how important a good editor is?”

  2. I’ve heard that story about Hubbard, too, and I would love the chance to talk to him about it.

     

    Your list is very good and I would only add, not subtract to it:

     

    Robert Heinlein:  Did you ever imagine when you started how much of a central figure, for better or worse, you would become. How do you feel about that?

     

    Roger Zelazny: I would love to get to the bottom of some of the mysteries of the Amber universe!

    And just having a conversation with someone as bright as Octavia Butler would be beyond price.

  3. Paul NYC: that cracked me up.

    Paul (@pricejvstin): I like your question to Heinlein. My understanding about him is that, while most SF writers started out as fans, Heinlein wasn’t a fan. Moreover, he was never really a fan of SF, engaging in fandom the way that folks like Asimov and Clarke did. You can see some of that in Grumbles From the Grave. I’d want to ask him if he really was ever a fan of the genre, or if this was just a living for him.

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Amber. In fact, I think the only Zelazny I’ve ever read is the collaboration with Alfred Bester: Psychoshop. (Which I enjoyed.)

  4. I regret never having met Robert A. Heinlein. I think he would be fascinating to talk to. I also wish he had lived longer, simply so we could have heard his political opinions as the USSR fell and as 9/11 happened. I’m not saying I would have agreed with him on his opinions, but I’d want to know what they were.

  5. In the 1995 Worldcon, I had just arrived and then who I spotted, having a nice chat with other writers? John Brunner. It was just the first day of the con, it was my very first con (my only one so far, to be honest) and I was very shy – I didn’t know how to approach him, and he was already surrounded by a group of friends (if I recall correctly, Joe Haldeman and Hal Clement were there with him). Well, I though to myself, I can try tomorrow.

    The next day, he had a heart attack and died.

    Everyone was shocked. I was baffled: I was so close to him the previous day, I was a big fan, I could have just approached him very politely and told him how much I appreciated his work. And now I would never be able to do that. I will never forget it.

    But, during the rest of the con, I lost all my timidity and took lots of pictures with other writers and talked A LOT with many of them, from Terry Pratchett and Kevin J. Anderson to Greg Benford and Mike Resnick (I asked Resnick ALL the questions I could about his Kirinyaga stories in the Kaffeeklatsch, and he answered them all with good humor and patience).

  6. R. A. LAFFERTY. I,d ask him why didn,t he get a better agent and publisher. It is ridiculous that his entire literary estate was offered for $75,000.

  7. I agree with you about Asimov’s non-fiction. When I studied Paradise Lost in college, I used an edition with his notes and explanations–it was fantastic.

    Also would love to meet Moore and Kuttner, who I first found in the 70s in a collection called A Gnome There Was. Great stuff. (The Last Mimsy was based on a story of theirs which was in that collection.)

    But my all-time favorite, who I wish I had met, would be Clifford Simak. His SF was the most human–natural landscapes, likable characters (even if they were ghosts or neanderthals or robots), and real emotion–of any of the writers I knew from that time.

    Anyway, nice post. Thanks for writing.

  8. Michael, I agree: it would be fascinating to hear Heinlein’s reaction to 9/11.

    Fabio, that’s some motivation right there. I, too, have done my best to meet those writers I admire that are still around today. In some cases, I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with them–something that never ceases to amaze me.

    Honey, I imagine that it wasn’t necessarily Lafferty’s choice what agent or publisher he had. Sometimes writers have to take what they can get.

    Richard, I have a copy of Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost, so I know what you are talking about. (In fact, I own all of his annotations, even Gilbert & Sullivan), except for Don Juan. Cliff Simak would be a great one. In addition to being a good writer (my personal favorite of his is Way Station), I hear that he was the least controvertial figure in science fiction; everybody loved him.

  9. I’ve met three from your list. Isaac Asimov, Judy Lynn-del rey and Lester Del Rey. I have pictures… :) I also just unpacked a box and found my old Heinleins including one signed to, “Shelly at 13, Robert Heinlein” yup, I’ve a few signed Heinleins too.

    I’d share more but I’m packing and moving.

    Me? I wish I’d met Clifford Simak, Alice Sheldon, and Leigh Brackett.

    Anon

    Shelly

     

  10. Paul, there’s a copy on my shelf behnd me, as well as a copy of his In The Beginning. I don’t think there is a non-fiction book by Asimov that I don’t own.

Comments are closed.