Everyone who reads this is likely to know my debts to classic writers on travel and sport. ( Those who don’t could do worse than to read my book The Sportsman’s Library or my (eventually!) forthcoming With Trees…)
But here I would like to acknowledge a couple of writers from the worlds of genre, and to genre novels themselves:, you might not know the science fiction writer Poul Anderson; you might know the late crime writer George V- Vliet !!) Higgins, a former prosecutor who knows where all the bodies are buried , from his crime novel snd movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle.. But do you know that he was the living master not only of blue .collar, ‘ Dawchestrian’ dialect but also of the subtlest class indicators- in his last novels he surpassed those he considered his masters— John O’Hara, JP Marquand ), only on lower rungs of the societal ladder. His rowdy prose DEMANDS reading aloud, and my father and used to do so , loudly and with much hilarity . at the dinner table, to my mother’s distress. (What an ear he had, and what a writer he could have been— I have just realized. Maybe THAT, not some abstract art gene, is my inheritance from him..)
Two more things on GVH; as an old prosecutor, one who used to drink at Chandler’s, hev utterly destroys the myth of Weather…
And he was responsible for Bodio’s Review. Ed Gray and I were sitting around in the pub under Grays and he said to me ‘You know that column that George Higgins does in the Saturday Globe? ‘
‘You mean ‘The Litr’y Life’?
‘Yeah. Why don’t you do us one like that?’
And so I did.
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s I read a lot of science fiction— not to the detriment of other reading but in addition to it. (My old Blog partner Reid Farmer was another who did that; unlike me, he still has a barn full of his vintage pb’s! In it I found the first SF novel I ever read, Poul’s The Long Way Home, from about 1964 -I was still at Jeanne d’arc, anyway).
So when the science fiction press outlets announced that their once in a decade WorldCon would be held in a Back Bay hotel in Boston, my first wife Bronwen and I made plans to attend.
We were fans of Science Fiction, as , curiously was my father; at one time it was the only safe thing we could talk about- ditto Bron! — but we were not Fans. I don’t think we were aware of the size or seriousness of organized ‘Fandom ‘ . In those pre-Internet days Fandom was an anarchic semi- organized group off well, FANS of Science fiction and to a lesser extent Fantasy — I mean, Fantasy fans, sensu stricto, were still more anarchic and (usually) less geeky crowd than the SF fans, and tended to be less organized than the SFers.The Fans created a little world of mostly male ( then, but already changing as more females entered the field as both writers and Fans) geeks totally obsessed with Sci Fi and fantasy.
Geeks ALWAYS dominated Fandom. Fans spent all their time reading and thinking about and talking about and (notoriously) NOT writing Science fiction, although they wrote plenty ABOUT it! A touch of Aspergian obsessiveness in such people was a feature, not a bug…
They did do almost exclusively through an odd extinct medium called a Zine, a sort of private newsletter, more or less open to all comers and therefore a predecessor of the Internet. Ii would be safe to say that Fans , and Stewart Brand, about whom I will write later), were classic early adapters, if not at least partial creators, of cyber culture. In those days, Fans would claim that they could, and would, make or break a book. They lied.
What Poul and Karen offered us was friendship — they took a risk to open themselves up to people they just met. Especially for us who had no idea the reality the writer’s life. We had no idea of what paid or how or how much was paid for anything .
We had by chance stumbled onto perhaps the ONLY people who could tell us more about how their syst worked than anyone else in the entire science fiction community. A study of the golden age of science fiction. showed us something amazing ; a formula unknown in other genres: Poul was the only sci-fi writer in North America who made his living entirely from writing. And we had stumbled on him right at the beginning!
His formal training was in engineering and he often featured ‘hard’ science; some readers appreciated the books more for the science than the fiction, but the literate reader, the fiction showed traces of Kipling, Conrad, Graham Greene. The stories were so good that it didn’t matter to the reader that they were science fiction. The dilemmas that then characters got into were those of human beings and the stuff that fiction has a been written about. His characters laughed and wept and bled and died and survived.
He did something else unusual . Normally the lines between fantasy and Science Fiction were well drawn. The genres took different parts of the imagination. A few like Fritz Lieber worked in the light side of both genres, what Bron and I called thud and blunder. Fritz was 6 ft 4, worked in horror movies, was a working Anarchist, and lived in New York City all his life.
Poul was nothing so flamboyant. He was just a person who thought in poetry and myth as well as in science. He wasn’t pretentious. He wrote very good serious fantasy. I recommend to this day . He was also visibly partnered. Karen would finish his sentences and he hers. They loved each other as much after twenty years of marriage as they had in the beginning. Again, an example for young people — they were having so much fun.
Poul was also responsible for a group called the Creative Anachronists, sometimes I think to pay for his sins. When I knew them, the SCA was a bunch of mostly tech geeks who dressed up in Medieval clothing and put a premium on accuracy when they bashed each other with artificial swords at tournaments. M.I.T. members were insufferably pretentious in a sort of heavy geek way.
I believe I didn’t find out until after Poul’s death that the ones in Berkeley were different. I found out about them from a great fantasy novel, The Folk of the Air by Peter Beagle. I had been misled by Beagle’s whimsical little stories like The Last Unicorn. Like many great fantasy novels, it was a good realistic novel as well as a good fantasy novel that works on an entirely different level. A pack of Berkeley dabblers brings back something from the dark side and can’t get rid of it. Beagle makes verbal pictures of Berkeley which Libby swears are the best ever done.
A digression, but it will work here — we also got to know R A Lafferty, who had just giving up drinking in his fifties but still acted like a wild hunk about half the time… he was the most Irish Catholic I’ve ever known. Author of Past Master , which brought back to the table Sir Thomas More, who ends up losing his head again. He was one of a kind and wonderful. Lafferty sat in the girls laps, which made more sense than Poul and I did for five days. Ray also wrote the definitive Oklahoma Indian book — a guy who looked and smelled like a South Bostonian drunk!
I should list the other fantasy novels I consider great —Tim Powers’ Declare; Elizabeth Hand’s, Waking The Moon; Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night.
Declade couldn’t have been written by a conventional Science Fiction writer, though Powers has tried to do that; that is, write more conventional novels. He couldn’t..
I’m about to put a rope on this and pull it in… for a while anyway.
I never went to a convention again. Bron and I received a lifetime of reading adventure as youth in innocence and that day in 1970.
Let me add one last thought to this rambling discussion. One of the things that opened me up to these books was my secret discovery of Bill Buckley’s early National Review magazine. A ‘Conservative’ journal, at the Boston Public library, where I worked after quitting the lab and before I joined the Zoo. NR was in fact, at that time, more anarchic than anything on the left, featuring columns by people like Libertarian Karl Hess, who looked like one of Castro’s irregulars, and wrote for Goldwater before he became a ‘hippie’ (Barry wrote a thoughtful memorial to him, likening him to a Pueblan shaman!) ; many years later his son , also Karl, sent me to Africa with Koch Brothers money. I had a great month, saw all the iconic species, was attacked by two elephants (only one serious); saw innovative conservation programs and what might be the beginning of a successful multiracial society DESPITE Mugabe; saw a sinister poachers’ camp, recently abandoned, where elephants’ skulls were used for chairs; I met the head of an anti poaching unit who said he was the best because ‘I kill more poachers !!´I had the best birding day of my ilfe— 97 I think, and I wasn’t even trying; I saw lions waiting for us to leave the safety of our truck in the moonlight.
And caught deadly falciparum malaria, which broke here, and was misdiagnosed, and I almost died (I knew what I had!) Karl brought me the South African Fansidar that finally cleared the bug from my body. but sometimes I wonder if its legacy isn;t this damned Parkinson’s…
Ted Sturgeon, a science fiction writer whose name was the inspiration for Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, reviewed books for NR. He was a nudist (only a 1960’s American, or possibly a Scandinavian,could make a psuedoreligion of not wearing clothes!), and a sexuual radical from southern California, who returned me to the work of Joseph Conrad (The scene- setting at the opening of Heart of Darkness is the best piece of descriptive writing in the English language, and it was Sturgeon who said what I so often quote; that Josef Korzenowski paid English the godlike compliment of writing in it , All this in the ancient National Review, plus an ancient Austro- Hungarian noble more Catholic than the Pope, who opposed everything normal in the 20th century; duelling professors who wore capes; a gaggle of former Trotskyists…..
And that was just the columnists!
Soon; Higgins and more…