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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
Last time we took a look at the first 11 of 23 book review columns written by Alfred Bester for F&SF, and closed with the following:
"Approximately halfway through his stint as F&SF Book Reviewer and already Bester has ticked off the fans, been reproached by his editor, and has missed a column altogether. Never mind his excellent insights into the craft of writing, his humorous suggestions to Blish and Sturgeon on how to improve their writing by becoming more human and less serious about sex, respectively, and his brilliant rant against most of the authors in the field.One can only trust the editor's explanation, and promise of Bester's return in the September, 1961 issue. But one wonders if Bester will take another month (or more) off—while still officially listed as Book reviewer. Has his frank, outspoken nature betrayed him? Soured the editor and readers against him, such that the frustrations he had already endured will prove too much and he will throw his hands up and quit?
Will Judith Merril have anything to say about his comment that it seems Men write about the Big Stuff and Women the Small?
What reaction did Andre Norton have to being labeled mediocre? And what of the question Bester raised about women not being able to write convincing action scenes? Are there more battles abrewing? How (if at all) will Bester deal with them?"
Herewith, the final twelve columns.
Column #12: September, 1961
While Bester returns to his column this month after a no-show the previous month, again there are no book reviews. Instead, the column is devoted to self-parody. It would seem apparent that following his deadline in that other medium for which he also writes (which caused him to miss the August column), he has not had the time to read any books for the current column. But to fulfill obligations, he has turned in a column nevertheless; one which shows that not only can he criticize his peers, he is not above criticizing himself--and while doing so to great effect, poses a question regarding the upcoming turks in the field.
Here are a few highlights:
"The editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, exasperated by an embarrassing situation, has asked this department to expose an author named Alfred Bester, and reveal the truth about his chicanery.Further on:
"All this merely demonstrates that Mr. Bester is a member of a breed which this department loathes, the authors who prefer talking about writing to writing. And we suggest that he does his talking to conceal the fact that he has nothing to say."And midway through the final paragraph:
"This fate has overtaken Mr. Bester and transformed him into a Demolished Man. But where are the thin, furious youngsters who should be replacing him? Can it be that a generation of security and conformity has added science fiction to its long list of victims?"Where are the "thin, furious youngsters" indeed? History reveals that it is rare for an author's first sale to make a huge splash, or garner much attention. Even rarer to become a classic. It happens, but rarely. So it is no real fault of Bester for not mentioning the names below. After all, Harlan Ellison's first sale was "Glow Worm," (we all fondly remember that classic) and Michael Moorcock's first sale came as a teenager, when he was penning and pastiching Burroughs, whose influence (among others) would then morph into his Eternal Champion stories (Elric, Corum, et al.) years later at Ted Carnell's Brit magazine New Worlds.
Below is a list of those making their first sales for each of the five years preceding Bester's reviewing gig at F&SF. Some of them would go on to make Names for themselves and impact the field enormously, answering Bester's question in spades. And the New Wave was just around the corner, hitting our shores roughly five years following Bester's time at F&SF.
(The below courtesy of Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories: ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg, Volumes 18-22. DAW Books, 1988-1991.)
Patience, Alfie, patience.
Column #13: October, 1961
Thirteen very short notices of novels or collections (all reprint), and one novelization from a film. Brief quotes of interest:
"Bypass To Otherness by Henry Kuttner . . . is a collection of eight stories by the late great master who, along with the departed Cyril Kornbluth, towered over the lesser authors in the 40s and 50s. There was nothing that Mr. Kuttner could not write better than anyone else.Column #14: November, 1961
Two new books reviewed at some length:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
Of Stranger, Bester begins by asking:
"What the devil has happened to Robert Heinlein? He has succeeded in writing the first half of his novel like a master, and the second half like a tyro. This department, usually quick to abandon a faltering book without finishing it, hung on for the last 200 pages . . . out of faith in the Grandmaster, and out of disbelief. 'This can't be happening,' we told ourself. 'The story must pick up again sooner or later. The Old Pro won't let himself maunder on to the end.' We were wrong."Halfway into the review, he continues:
"Most of the second half of the book is dedicated to sex and salvation, with Smith turned into a Messianic figure as written by Frank Yerby out of Sinclair Lewis. It was, we believe, Mr. Heinlein's intent to weave religion and sexual relations into a related design, but he succeeds only in splicing revivalism with voyeurism. And he has managed to make the two most exciting and potent forces in our culture seem dull and unattractive."The final graph:
"Mr. Heinlein is still the Grandmaster when he sticks to science fiction; it is only when he attempts to become a thinker that he fills us with sorrow."A head-snapping jab to the Heinlein ego? What might RAH think of such a comment?
("I have never seen anything that was ever any use to me from a critic; nothing that would enable me to write a better book the next time.") --Robert A. Heinlein, The Kansas City Star, Sept. 21, 1980, from an interview with David A. TruesdaleWhen I interviewed RAH a short time before my piece appeared, it was for Robert A. Heinlein Day in his hometown of Butler, MO. I had just received an Advance Proof of The Number of the Beast (which I disliked, and said so in my review in the Star). The above quote was by way of response to one of my questions about the padded, repetitive, irrelevancies I thought hurt the book. Which brings to mind something Bester imparted to your humble columnist during a four-hour, non-stop (adult beverage enhanced) interview at a bar in the Muehlbach hotel during the 1976 Worldcon:
"And you know damn well that when you write, a scene is no damn good, it's not valid unless it moves the action. Everything must move forward; you must at every point move forward. You've got to move that story. Man, get that story off its ass and keep it going! And too many writers, I'm afraid, fall in love with a scene that is not moving anything, and they keep it anyway. I think it's a mistake to do that." –Tangent #6, Winter 1977Column #15: December, 1961
Six book reviews, but nothing worthy of note here. However, at the end of the reviews there is a section titled LETTRES DE CACHET, which reprints a few letters and Bester's responses to them. Some of them are so funny I thought at first they were gag letters, but since each is ostensibly signed (using initials only) and include a city of origin, maybe they are for real after all. Or not.
Why are you always so mad at other writers? You should be friends. --B.B., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.Column #16: January, 1962
Four books reviewed this time. Nothing of great import, but there are two quotes worthy of passing interest. The first reveals one of Mr. Bester's literary prejudices, and the second his observation about something he has noted concerning English vs. American authors.
"The Ghoul Keepers [ed. Leo Margulies] is a collection of Weird-type fantasy, featuring old stories by such masters as Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. We cannot comment on them because we've always loathed the old style pulp fantasy, and must bar ourself for prejudice. However, we suspect that many readers must have been of the same mind, which is why the immortal Unknown and this magazine became so popular when they ushered in the new era of sophisticated fantasy."Bester's final paragraph about the book:
"It's all theoretically interesting, but not quite dramatic enough for the taste of this department, which is why we opened our review with the reference to Mr. Clarke's English background. He demonstrates the point we've often made before; that English authors seem to lack the emotional impact and dramatic drive of their American colleagues. A Heinlein, a Budrys, or a Sturgeon in the same story would not only have interested you; they'd have made you sweat big drops."Column #17: February, 1962
Three reviews in a mere two pages. About Clifford D. Simak's novel Time Is The Simplest Thing, which Bester praises, he wraps up with " . . . Mr. Simak is the one science fiction author who consistently refuses to adopt the cliche that aliens are, ipso facto, enemies. It reveals a sane and admirable aspect of his character; he is genuinely civilized."
Bester has made no secret of his unbridled love for Theodore Sturgeon's fiction. Once again he sings his praises:
"The vanity of this department is so gigantic that we can't believe that the rest of the world does not share our admiration for Theodore Sturgeon, and does not, like ourself, yearn for a uniform hardcover edition of his works to treasure. This does not mean that we're knocking the Pyramid softcover collection, A Way Home, which includes nine fine stories of the Maestro, plus a scintillating and penetrating introduction by Groff Conklin. We're grateful for it, and you will be, too."Column #18: March, 1962
No book reviews this time, Bester seeing fit to discuss SF fans through a dialogue with a fictional fan he calls John X. John is a thinly disguised Bester wedded in part to what he considers characteristics of the average fan. Making interesting points about what makes SF and SF fans the rebellious non-conformists it/they are through John's eyes, Bester concludes with the following, when he meets up again with John after a period of time.
"We ran into him on Madison Avenue the other day. The Russians had put their men into space, and the Americans were busting to catch up. Brendan Behan's play, "The Hostage" was featuring a song: "Mr. Khruschev, don't muck around with the moon." "Twilight Zone" had been appearing on television for years. John was triumphant.This marks the third time in a year and a half's worth of columns that Bester expresses his feeling, his deeply felt concern about the SF field--each from a slightly differing perspective and method of attack. He seems very much the bulldog on this issue, not willing to let it go, and while obviously frustrated, still attempts to awaken a (to his mind) lethargic SF community. The first was in Column #5 (Feb., 1961), that lengthy rant about the overall poor quality of fiction in the field and his contention that it was unequivocably the fault of the authors. The second time was in Column #12 (Sept., 1961), where he asks where all the "thin, furious youngsters" were; those young, passionate up and comers. And now, his third volley, exhorting SF to rekindle its rebellious, non-conformist attitude.
He wouldn't have much longer to wait, for his determined Call to Arms for the field of Improbabilia he loved so much would be answered beyond his wildest imaginings—the New Wave was but a few short years down the road.
We reiterate: Patience, Alfie, patience.
Column #19: April, 1962
Five books reviewed, two worthy of note.
The Primal Urge, by Brian W. Aldiss The Silver Eggheads, by Fritz Leiber
Mr. Bester begins thusly:
"We are appalled this month to be forced to slate two of our favorite authors; men whose work we admire, whose talent we envy, and whose books we always open eagerly, anticipating an exciting adventure in literature. They are Brian Aldiss and Fritz Leiber."After giving high praise to a few stories from each author, Bester continues:
"Both of these gentlemen have a quality without which the greatest talent in the world is useless; a vital grip on reality which enables them to permeate their works with believability. What the devil are we to do, then, when each of them comes up with a silly, incredible novel, especially when both books are attempts at humor?"After discussing the premise, Bester closes his comment on the Aldiss novel with this:
"The premise is so entirely contrary to human nature, so obviously a what-would-happen-if gimmick, that it was impossible for this department to become interested in the characters or their conflicts."Likewise, Bester closes his comment on the Leiber with this:
" . . . Mr. Leiber is off on a mishmash of writers, publishers, robots and disembodied brains, all in a preposterous turmoil over the production of pulp and science fiction.Well. And harrumph. Since The Silver Eggheads has always been one of our favorite absurd, over-the-top, satires, I of course take issue with Mr. Bester's assessment. It is a scathing indictment of "packaged" product and the system which promotes it, and I urge you to seek it out.
(Note: With this issue Avram Davidson becomes Executive Editor, replacing Robert P. Mills.)
Column #20: May, 1962
No Alfred Bester column this month. This is the second he has missed, the first being Column #11, August, 1961.
Instead, we have a Guest Reviewer to fill the space. And irony of ironies, it is none other than Fritz Leiber. Leiber's column is prefaced by Bester:
"From time to time this department invites eminent authors, artists, scientists and critics to contribute their thoughts on science fiction. This month's guest is the great Fritz Leiber, who needs no introduction. Hear him on the provocative issue of the status of the science fiction author in a status-seeking world." --Alfred BesterLeiber's seven-page column is titled "Mutterings From Underground." While fascinating reading, it reviews no books, and since our column is about Alfred Bester. . . .
Column #21: June, 1962
Bester is back, and reviews six books. Interesting comments from one collection of stories follows.
"Shadows With Eyes by Fritz Leiber is a collection of six long stories by that warlock of the outre, dating as far back as 1941. . . . " "We had the misfortune to dislike Mr. Leiber's novel, The Silver Eggheads, a few months ago, so it gives us great pleasure to endorse this collection and heartily recommend it.Column #22: July, 1962
Bester begins his next to last review column with this:
"Once again we're forced to apologise to the authors, who are, after all, the star-attractions of this department, for our failure to list their books and names at the head of this column. There are far too many. We are attempting a little spring-cleaning to close out the titles which were omitted from past columns for various reasons."He then gives no more than a single, brief paragraph to sixteen various sorts of books, one in particular worthy of note. A book of Andre Norton's. Recall that in Column #4 (January, 1961) Bester wrote that Ms. Norton was "a science fiction author of only mediocre attainment." And "Can a woman really write convincing action?".
He now writes about Ms. Norton's novel Catseye:
"Miss Norton was somewhat annoyed with our comments on her historical novel, Shadow Hawk, last year, so we'll confine ourself to a summary of the plot. Troy Horan is deported from his own planet, relocated to the planet Korwar, gets a job in a pet shop, and discovers that he can communicate with some of the rare, imported creatures. Then his boss is murdered, Horan is suspect, escapes, and engages in plot and counterplot to free himself and his dumb friends from--what? Read it and find out."Heh, heh.
Though purposely eschewing comment of any kind—the exact opposite of the sort of review we have come to expect (and notice how dry his columns would have been if all had been written with plot summaries and nothing more)—Alfie still couldn't resist injecting the crack about the "dumb friends." Ya gotta love Alfie, agree with him or not. We remember something we heard many years ago, that right or wrong in their views or opinions, the editor/reviewer/critic always has the last word--at least in their own venue. Bester bore truth to this with his "review" of Catseye.
Column #23 (the last): August, 1962
In his fifth issue since assuming the mantle of Executive Editor, Avram Davidson takes over the Book Review column. In a two-page effort prefacing Davidson's 4+ page review column, Alfred Bester sums up his tenure with a heartfelt, touching, impassioned resignation. We wish it could be reprinted in its entirety, but alas, we have chosen several passages which we hope capture its essence.
"And so, at last, I must say goodbye to this department. I feel that I've exhausted my usefulness to Fantasy & Science Fiction, and, alas, exhausted my patience with science fiction. Since I've been repeatedly accused of being waspish in my reviews (one exasperated reader suggested that I was going through Change of Life), I felt that I'd better get out before I became downright crabbed.Loose Ends and Closing Thoughts
It can now be seen that Judith Merril (at least publicly, and we have no evidence that she did so privately) took no umbrage at Mr. Bester's observation that men write about the Big Issues and women the more "viscerotonic" Small Stuff (Column #1).
Andre Norton did take issue with his remarks about her status (which was more or less accurate back in 1960-61, given the status of other, more established giants in the field at the time), and his question of whether women could pen convincing action scenes (Column #4), as acknowledged by Mr. Bester in Column #22.
To attempt any sort of capsule perspective, it must be remembered that F&SF's founders, Boucher & McComas, did all of the book reviewing until Damon Knight became the magazine's Book Reviewer in November, 1959. After 11 issues Bester took over in October, 1960. Bester lasted almost twice as long as Damon, though he missed two issues, and several were taken over with essays; highly interesting, controversial essays it must be noted.
We can't in all honesty pretend to have known Alfred Bester intimately, having spent but four unbroken hours with him on the last day of the 1976 Worldcon in a bar. We must report our feeling, however, that four hours with Alfred Bester was akin to four years with almost any other author we have interviewed over the decades.
From all that I've learned of Alfred Bester which includes, of course, his professional work, awards, and other sundry accolades; anecdotes and articles written about him, and the time I was privileged to have spent with him, it is obvious that in many ways he was a genius, brilliant yet troubled. He was cosmopolitan in nature, a world traveler (he spoke at ease--and with personal experience--about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on the one hand, and how such a brilliant actress as Shirley Booth was reduced to a role as a maid in the TV sitcom Hazel on the other; and never mind his story (which I have yet to transcribe from tape) about bored whores on their backs eating apples on a dock while doing their business in some European port. He was brash, bold, and energetic (he talked a mile a minute, eclipsed only perhaps by William Tenn in our experience). His real-life experiences lent him the wide, open-ended view of science fiction which irritated and frustrated him when it came to the provincial parochialism he met head on in the science fiction community. No better testament to this clash than in his book reviews for F&SF.
Not only was Alfred Bester brilliant and outspoken, he truly cared about science fiction as a genre. He tried his damndest to improve its quality, but, as with many of like mind and intensity of purpose, arrived at a point where it wasn't worth beating his head against the insular wall the community erected beyond a certain point of negative personal return. He'd had his say, and let the cards fall where they may. His life was larger than that and he continued to write--with success--long after his departure from F&SF. And good for him. And good for us.
In a strange sort of way, if we're not seeing a parallel where there may not be one, Alfred Bester's "arc" with his review column coincides with what an early editor once told him about his fiction. Again, from Tangent #6, Winter, 1977:
[Tangent: Have you ever been able to tone yourself down?Irony Times Deux
Isaac Asimov was given Grand Master status by SFWA in 1986. Ray Bradbury was given Grand Master status in 1988. Alfred Bester was given Grand Master status in 1987, sandwiched between two of the all-time greats in our field. Though Grand Master's are given to living authors, Bester's was a "done deal," though he died before the official ceremony. It is ironic to note, however, that Andre Norton was granted Grand Master status in 1983, four years before Bester (not to mention before Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, as well as Bester--not to belittle Norton by any stretch, but go figure).
And if you'll indulge us this one final (minor) bit of irony only slightly related to Alfred Bester, we'd like to point out that one of those "thin, furious youngsters" Bester hoped would bring new life to the genre, was Harlan Ellison, who sold his first genre story back in 1956. Robert P. Mills was not only F&SF's editor since 1959, but Ellison's agent.
As editor of the SFWA Bulletin at the time, we put together a special 50th Anniversary Issue for F&SF (Issue #144, Winter, 1999). We called Harlan and asked if he would write a special, full-page, Inside Rear Cover tribute to celebrate the magazine's 50th Anniversary. He enthusiastically agreed on the spot. To show the unqualified, unreserved respect this magazine has earned over the years, we now reprint a brief quote from Harlan's Golden Anniversary tribute.
"When the world was summat younger, and so was I, you'd best believe I would have made a deal with the most redolent, vomitous, duplicitous scumbag of a minor demon; would have indentured myself to the Mob, the Men in Black, the Church, or the Scientologists; would have whacked or chilled or sanctioned with extreme prejudice, anyone or anything; would have . . . to have sold a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction." --Harlan EllisonHarlan goes on to lament that his "goddam agent" as editor of F&SF wouldn't buy a story from him for the magazine. It was not until Avram Davidson became editor that he sold his first story to F&SF. The irony? Harlan Ellison sold "Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman," his very first story to F&SF, for the August, 1962 issue. Which just happened to be the very same issue in which Alfred Bester resigned as Book Reviewer. So there's your Six Degrees of . . .
For what it's worth, Alfred Bester's time at F&SF was well spent. At what personal cost to him, we'll never know (though those who knew him far better than we are welcome to fill in any personal details). In any case, when all is said and done, we say God Bless Alfred Bester.
And Finally . . .
We wish to thank F&SF's most generous, kind, and discerning (and quite likely deranged) editor for affording us the opportunity to write this column. (This venue should be considered an extension of our editorials and articles at Tangent Online, by the way). In a general sense, we agree on most of the truly important issues concerning SF; on specific issues we often disagree--albeit and thankfully on a purely professional level. Over the past thirteen-plus years, in Tangent and at Tangent Online we have praised and panned his (and his predecessor's) choices on specific stories (as we have with every other magazine and editor). This objectivity (or impartiality, if you prefer) will not change; we are not an apologist for this magazine or any other. We have been informed that we may write whatever strikes our fancy, regardless of topic or subject matter. Therefore, you will see reviews of (select) current short fiction (including that in this magazine), historical reminiscences (as in this first two-part column, which just happens to deal with F&SF), our views on the current state of short science fiction, and whatever else interests us. We will praise (highly) or carp (vehemently) where we deem it warranted.
We close with much belated, but sincere congratulations on the birth of Ye Editor's first crumb-cruncher, a beautiful baby girl named Zoe. A pleasant, distinctive name with a nice ring to it, and relatively uncommon. But we are given to wonder if Ye Ed and Wife are aware that in that bygone year of 1988 Donald A. Wollheim (DAW), saw birthed a granddaughter also named Zoe. I quote from the dedication to Donald A. Wollheim Presents: The 1988 Annual World's Best SF:
"This is for the latest addition to the DAW family: Zoe Alexandra Wollheim Stampfel—Third generation of a Futurian dynasty."Is this mere happenstance; a random coincidence? Or is Ye Ed trying to establish his own rival sfnal dynasty?
Only Ye Ed (with his Better Half's permission, of course) can affirm (or deny) this newly spawned conspiracy (aka "The Van Gelder Code").
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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