Tag Archives: Stephen King

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆

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Banned SF&F: let’s celebrate Banned Books Week 2008!

It’s Banned Books Week (last week of September every year), an assertion of our freedom to read whatever we damn well please, led by the American Library Association for the last 27 years. Way to go, ALA, I’ll drink to that!

Let’s take a look at some of the science fiction and fantasy that has been challenged or banned by the small-minded censorship-loving prudes in the past, and their reasons for wanting it suppressed. I include fantasy just because so many demented dimwits out there criticize it for promoting “witchcraft” or “sorcery” (as if such things really existed), and that kind of irrational, muddle-headed nonsense annoys me to no end. (Much of this information comes from the ALA site, a great resource for learning about banned books).

1984 by George Orwell
Why: “pro-communist, explicit sexual matter.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Why: “promiscuous sex, language, moral content, negative activity, contempt for religion,” etc.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Why: the Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico had themselves a barbecue and threw LOTR on the fire because it’s “satanic.” Ok, everyone together…. ready…. start laughing…. NOW!

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Why: “objectionable language.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Why: contains the phrase “God damn”
Wait…. someone wanted to ban a book which is ABOUT the ultimate banning of books? Is it possible for a human being to so completely lack any inkling of the concept of irony!?

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Why: witchcraft, satanism, the usual crap…. blah blah blah.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Why: contains witches and crystal balls, challenges religious beliefs (and we just can’t have that now, can we?).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Why: sex, language, etc.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Why: sexuality.

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
Why: critical of religion.

Cujo, Carrie, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Why: sex, violence.

So go on, open one of these books and enjoy it, and be free from the petty tyrants who want to control what you read because (a) they’re so uptight about sex and “bad” words, (b) they can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, (c) they think their religious beliefs should be insulated from even the slightest criticism, whether real or imagined, or (d) some combination of the above.

Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.
~Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

Every burned book enlightens the world.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson