[Today’s Mind Meld was suggested by an SF Signal reader, Gary Farber, who is here among our guests. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
In the past couple of years, we have seen the appearance of at the least two important biographies of Science Fiction writers, the first volume of Robert Patterson’s work on Robert A. Heinlein (Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve) and Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, a sort of complement to Weller’s biography, published in 2006. But there are so many writers out there, living and dead, whose lives we would have loved to know a bit more so we maybe could feel the same feeling of closeness we use to feel when we are reading their stories.
So, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I’d love to see a biography of Alfred Bester. I don’t know if his life was interesting enough to warrant one, but I do know that he left his literary estate to his bartender when he died, and anyone who does something like that had to have had SOME good real-life stories. (Apparently the bartender didn’t know what to do with the estate, and as a result Bester’s work was out of print for several years, until Byron Preiss rescued it and brought it back to light in the 90s.) Bester also wrote Green Lantern for a while, and created the oft-quoted Green Lantern oath, when he was writing the comic, though I don’t know if there would be any interesting stories surrounding that or his time writing comics. A few years ago, I went on a big Bester kick — I’d gone back to read though his ouvre more completely, and re-read The Stars My Destination (my favorite novel). Then, sometime later, I read the brilliant Tiptree biography by Julie Phillips, and that’s when I first conceived of this desire to read a Bester biography. Given there wasn’t one, I went on a bit of a scavenger hunt, tracking down all the information about Bester I could find, not just online, but in old magazines and the like–looking for interviews or anything that talked about the man himself, as opposed to just his fiction. I never did find much indication that there’d be enough good material to make a biography, but still I wish there was one (or perhaps that Bester had been as interesting in life as his fiction was).
I’d like a thorough biography of Michael Moorcock. I consider him to be one of the most important figures in 20th Century science fiction and fantasy, whose influence extended beyond the New Wave movement — itself colossally important to the growth and sophistication of both the genre and mainstream literature — into role playing games, rock and roll, and even quantum physics. Moorcock forever reshaped both fantasy and science fiction, wrote one of the earliest works of steampunk, and gave the world the term “multiverse.” At one time, every bookstore had a Tolkien section and a Moorcock section. We still have the Tolkien shelf. We need to work on getting the Moorcock shelf back!
Ursula K. Le Guin
Many are variants of traditional categories:
1) Author has ordinary job, starts family, writes on the side, becomes successful, quits job to write novels full time, writes many, dies.
2) Author goes into academia, writes fiction, commentary, reviews, has family, and some commercial success on the side, dies.
3) Author ping-pings through dozens of odd jobs, some colorful, writes a lot, has 8 spouses, does lots of drugs, drinking, goes through several rock bands, starts a minor literary movement or two, has major feuds with other writers, either fades out or matures, then dies.
Some writers have had fascinating lives of exotic travel, and background.
Most do not. (Roger Zelazny was one of our best writers, but his life was not, to my knowledge, extraordinary.)
Some “merely” have wonderful skills of observation, imagination, and use their writer’s toolbox to bring us fascinating worlds and characters whose experiences change our views of the world and each other.
Some writers’ writing so enchants and intrigues and stimulates us that we want to know more as to how such a person’s mind developed, of what sort of life could have led to such mind-bending insights and concepts, no matter how quotidian their external life seems to be.
The best contemporary example of a science fiction writer with a fascinating life, and a wonderful biography to match is Julie Phillips‘ superb JAMES TIPTREE, JR: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE SHELDON.
A fantasy writer whose life largely holds one compelling episode — his experiences in World War I — but whose life of the mind and shared companionship, in combination with his tremendous influence in the field, would be John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In such a case, even an examination of a crucial portion of a life can be fascinating to those sufficiently interested in the writer and the work, such as may be the case with John Garth’s TOLKIEN AND THE GREAT WAR.
A writer who will continue to generate analysis, including how his life and writing interacted, long after I’m dead, is Philip K. Dick; an unexamined life is not a problem Dick leaves us with.
Some sf writers have partially filled a biographical gap with autobiography, which while possessing different virtues than an insightful and well-researched biography, nonetheless may lessen the need for an outsider’s view. Such a view of, say, Isaac Asimov, could be useful and valuable, but for the most part, there are few mysteries seemingly left to be told of even a giant of the field such as Asimov.
Robert A. Heinlein, of course, has been well-covered by William H. Patterson’s detailed ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: IN DIALOGUE WITH HIS CENTURY.
Among other greats who have extensively written of themselves, and I’m thus putting aside as folks we most urgently desire to know more of, include Jack Williamson, Jack Vance, and Fred Pohl. Samuel R. Delany has written what I’d argue are the most brilliant of autobiographical works several times now, including HEAVEN’S BREAKFAST and THE MOTION OF LIGHT IN WATER.
Already much covered, of course, are classical forebears, such as Mary Shelly, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.
Who are we left with? This is where subjectivity enters stage left, and we come to my own desires. You, dear reader, will enlighten us by putting forward your own suggestions and justifications in comments.
Me, I’m going to cheat and name several people.
The Most Important Silver Age skiffy writer with no great biography remains Arthur C. Clarke. We do have his semi-autobiographical novel GLIDE PATH, working off his experiences as a technician on early radar in World War II.
But the great factor steered around, or dealt with in awkward passing, by most who have written on Clarke’s life in short form so far, is, of course, his closeted homosexuality, which seems to have clearly been a major reason for his life as an emigre in Sri Lanka. We’re told that he has many journals sealed until thirty years after his death:
[…] ‘I used to keep a journal from, I guess, the Thirties,’ he admits. ‘There are volumes and volumes of it which are all in the Clarkives now. They are,’ he adds, oddly, ‘to be sealed up for 30 years after my death’.
Why on earth are they sealed up?
‘Well,’ he says, ‘there might be all sorts of embarrassing things in them’.
What kind of things?
He doesn’t answer.
A biography of the man who conceptualized communications satellites and did so much to popularize space travel, and the wonders it might hold, cries out to be written. Surely no one other than perhaps Ray Bradbury — whose life, like many writers, largely consisted of sitting at home, writing — has been more prominent in the field and yet left without a major biography?
That said, we need biographies of figures perhaps less famous, and more recent, though hardly new, with stories less told, to tell us what the life of more modern science fiction writers have been like.
We could start with the great Octavia Butler, MacArthur Genius grant winner. Was her life full of adventure? Perhaps not, but I have little idea; all I know of her own story is that which is on Wikipedia, and scattered in a few articles. Whatever the external details, how Octavia Butler became the writer she made herself is something I’d like to read about.
Ursula Le Guin is a still living, still writing, still powerful, great, who has always stayed as private as she can reasonably manage, and we have a fascinating account by her mother, Theodora Kroeber, of her father, Alfred Kroeber, but a searching biography is called for.
A life with many stories already told, both by others and himself, still needs a cool, detailed, thorough, and insightful and fair, look, no matter how out or in of favor he may be in a given era, is the inevitable Harlan Ellison. Hate him or love him, there’s no lack of color to come in a thoughtful examination of his life and work.
While we’re talking cranky, controversial, argumentative, much-argued about, figures in the field, few have been more important or less infuriating than John W. Campbell, Jr., the figure who, like it or not, changed the field with his editorship of Astouding in the Golden Age of 1938 through the mid-Forties, and continuing in decreasingly influential ways as editor of Analog until his death in 1972. An infuriating racist crank, the original popularizer of Dianetics, the Dean Drive, and psi powers, Campbell left scars and traces on science fiction still present today.
In general I’d love to read more biographies of a few of the great editors of the field. A truly compelling work on the man we mostly laugh at these days, Hugo Gernsback, is still necessary. Literary biographies, at least, of H. L. Gold and “Anthony Boucher” would be very useful.
Lastly, my personal desire, much though I do know of his work and life myself, would be to see a good biography of the great editor, anthologist, fan, and occasional sf writer, Terry Carr. Few have had a more rounded life in science fiction and yet he’s quickly being forgotten as all his books, edited or of his own fiction, have long fallen out of print. No life could better explore the milieu of the science fiction subculture in the Fifties through Eighties than a look through the prism of Terry’s life in our world, reflecting as it did so many aspects of skiffy in those decades. A look at Terry Carr’s life in science fiction would be time-binding in the best sense of the word.
(Trivial note: did you know Tim O’Reilly wrote a book on Frank Herbert? Now you do!)
But whose life story has yet to be fully explored, and who I most want to know more about?
[…] After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Linebarger taught at Duke University from 1937 to 1946, but he also served actively in the Army during World War II as a second lieutenant. Pierce writes that “As a Far East specialist he was involved in the formation of the Office of War Information and of the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare section.”  He was sent to China and put in charge of psychological warfare and of coordinating Anglo- American and Chinese military activities. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major.
In 1947, he became professor of Asiatic Politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Pierce writes, Dr. Linebarger turned his wartime experiences into Psychological Warfare, still regarded as the most authoritative text in the field. As a colonel, he was advisor to the British forces in Malaya, and to the U. S. Eighth Army in Korea. But this self- styled “visitor to small wars” passed up Vietnam, feeling American involvement there was a mistake.
You may know him as Cordwainer Smith, and if you don’t, as a reader of science fiction, you should. Here are some hints from his granddaughter as to what sort of intrigue may lurk within the yet fully told story of Linebarger’s life.
Runners-up: I wouldn’t mind knowing more detail than the moderate amount I do about Leigh Brackett (co-author of the screenplay of The Big Sleep, with William Faulker, among other experiences), Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester.
Among dead writers, I’m looking forward to a biography of Paul Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith). Alan Elms has been working on one for years
As to living writers, what I’d really like to see is a new book along the lines of Charles Platt’s DREAM MAKERS profiling a dozen or two of today’s leading lights.
I should add also that I’m delighted Harry Harrison finished his memoirs. I’m very much looking forward to reading them. I only wish they weren’t posthumous.
I’m a historian and I find affinity groups intriguing, so rather than see biographies of individuals, I’d love to see biographies of collectives: the group of writers we know as the Futurians; the group who became the New Wave; the group of people who set up Wiscon. All of these *as groups* could be the subject of fascinating collective biographies which traced the personal and intellectual interactions. One of the advantages of this approach, is that writers who often contributed “only” one novel, or one story to a movement frequently emerge front and centre.