Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘S.I. Hayakawa

Tales from the pulp jungle

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In 1934, a young man named Frank Gruber moved from Illinois to New York City, where he took up residence at the Forty-Fourth Street Hotel in Times Square. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Gruber described the hotel’s usual clientele as consisting of “broken-down actors, starving actors, hungry vaudevillians, wrestlers, poor opera singers, touts, bookies, sharpies, hungry actors, no, I said that before, and all around no-goods and deadbeats. And one hungry, would be writer.” Like Robert A. Heinlein, his slightly younger contemporary, Gruber had grown up entranced by the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, although he later said that he had come away from those novels with the wrong message:

Virtually all of the Horatio Alger, Jr. books have the same theme—they tell how poor boys became rich. The theme inspired three generations of Americans. Alas! The reading of the Alger books did not instill in me the ambition to become a rich businessman. No, the books inspired me to become a writer, to write books like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Gruber, like Heinlein, had been impressed by the example of pulp legend Jack Woodford, and by the age of twenty-three, he had accumulated a stack of rejection slips from dozens of publications, ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to what Gruber considered “the lowest form of writing”—the Sunday School papers. Finally, after a period in which he had as many as forty submissions out for consideration at any one time, he sold a story, “The Two-Dollar Raise,” for three dollars and fifty cents. Gruber recalled his sense of elation: “I had made it.”

After a stint as an editor for a series of farm papers in the Midwest, Gruber moved to New York to try breaking into the pulps. He estimated that the trip would take two or three weeks, but it lasted for seven months. Soon after his arrival, he met the prolific Arthur J. Burks, who offered him some useful advice: “The life of a pulp writer is seven years. At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.” Gruber took his words to heart, and he soon learned the everyday survival skills that most aspiring writers are forced to master. As he wrote decades later:

I had “tomato soup” at the Automat on Broadway at least once a day. The Automat restaurants, which are peculiar to the East, are just what the name implies. You get a flock of nickels from the cashier, then go down the battery of little cubicles, inside of which repose the articles of food that appeal to you…So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your own. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto—tomato soup!

Gruber continued: “Cost? Nothing. I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.” And he admitted elsewhere that there were stretches when he ate nothing else for three days at a time.

At last, Gruber got his break, after writing five thousand words overnight to fill a gap in the pulp magazine Operator #5, and he became a reliable contributor to the detective and mystery titles, as well as a member of an association of pulp writers called the American Fiction Guild. He wrote a few stories for Weird Tales, along with a much later effort for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he was never particularly close to the science fiction crowd, with whom he claimed to have waged “a cold war…that exists, to a degree, to this very day.” Gruber was friends with Mort Weisinger, the editor who would later play a significant role in the development of Superman. One day, Gruber got into an argument with Weisinger and the agent Julius Schwartz about what was then known as “pseudoscience fiction,” which encompassed science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Gruber remembered:

In the heat of the discussion I made the statement that all pseudoscience writers were weirdies [sic]. I was roundly denounced by both Mort and Julius and in the ensuing melee I came out with the flat declaration that I could pick out a pseudoscience writer in a roomful of people. Mort promptly challenged me. J. Hamilton Edwards was in New York from his home upstate and would be at the American Fiction Guild. Mort had ten dollars that said I could not pick J. Hamilton Edwards out of the crowd on sight.

Gruber took him up on the bet, which he reduced from ten dollars to two, and they went to lunch. Looking around the room, Gruber saw a writer “with buck teeth as big as those of Clement Attlee’s son-in-law.” He confidently identified him as J. Hamilton Edwards—and he was right. (“Edwards” was really the writer Edmond Hamilton, and he eventually got his teeth fixed.) Gruber recalled: “The story got around and the science fiction writers still hate me.”

The anecdote hints at the divide, which may have been more apparent than real, between the different circles of pulp writers, of whom Gruber wrote elsewhere: “A writer spends so many hours inventing adventures for his fictional characters that he sometimes confuses fiction and fact. He begins to think that he has lived some of the adventures of which he has written.” (Much later, S.I. Hayakawa made a similar observation: “If the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.”) As an example, he mentions another aspiring author at the Fourth-Fourth Street Hotel, who often spent time in Gruber’s room with Weisinger and the writers Jack Reardon and Steve Fisher. One evening, this writer was bragging about his own exploits: “He had been in the United States Marines for seven years, he had been an explorer on the upper Amazon for four years, he’d been a white hunter in Africa for three years.” Gruber quietly took a few notes, and later in the conversation, he asked his friend: “You’re eighty-four years old, aren’t you?” When the writer protested that he was only twenty-six, Gruber showed his work:

I read from my notes. “Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years…I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years.”

Gruber concluded: “The writer blew his stack. I will say this, his extremely vivid imagination earned him a fortune, some years later. He wrote one book that directly and indirectly earned him around half a million dollars in a single year.” It was called Dianetics.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2016 at 7:30 am

A choice of futures

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Jack Williamson

A plausible impossibility is always preferable to an improbable possibility.


Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the legendary science fiction author Jack Williamson when I came across a statement that struck a nerve. When asked about the genre’s supposed ability to predict the future, Williamson replied:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This resonated with me, because I often feel the same way about my own fiction. I’m not all that interested in extrapolating future trends for their own sake, mostly because I feel that other writers are better at it: instead, I’m more drawn to stories that put known facts into surprising juxtapositions that lend themselves to a final twist. And in practice, this often means that the plot turns on a highly unlikely combination of factors that I needed to make that particular story possible. (See “The Boneless One,” “Kawataro,” and just about everything else I’ve ever written.)

Obviously, I try to conceal any underlying improbabilities from the reader, mostly by following what I’ve called the anthropic principle of fiction, in which a story’s setting and basic premises are chosen to enable the twist, rather than the other way around. There’s no denying that there’s an element of sleight of hand involved, and you could even argue that it could be dangerous, especially when the requirements of an entertaining plot are confused with science fiction’s reputation for accurate predictions. As the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa wrote in an early review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics:

I have long felt that there are dangers to the writer as well as to the reader in pulp fiction. It did not occur to me until I read Dianetics to try to analyze the special dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing. The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

But we aren’t worried that an author of mystery novels, say, will become so enamored of his account of a perfect crime that he’ll feel obliged to carry it out himself. Science fiction, at least of the hard variety, differs from similar genres in that much of its appeal arises from its apparent foundation in fact. As a result, it’s easier to imagine an author failing to distinguish between reality and his own speculations, even as he elides that boundary in his fiction for the sake of a good story. In the interview quoted above, Jack Williamson talks about “the popular myth of [science fiction’s] futurological accuracy,” which is still a major aspect of the field’s reputation, and a reason why many writers are drawn to it in the first place—even though science fiction has a mixed track record at nailing down the details. If a story does happen to get something right, it’s often by accident, and incidental to the main thrust of the story. When we talk about movies that do a good job of predicting how the future might look, one of the first to come up is Minority Report, which makes some remarkably shrewd guesses about facial recognition, driverless cars, and gesture interfaces. What’s funny, of course, is that few of these gadgets have anything to do with the plot itself, which is based less on science than on fantasy: they have more to do with art direction than storytelling, and don’t have much to do at all with the original story by Philip K. Dick, who was far more interested in mood, theme, and paradox than in forecasting how we’d interact with our screens.

Yet that’s exactly as it should be, and it’s something that both readers and writers of science fiction should keep in mind whenever they think about the choice of futures that a story makes. Frederik Pohl once said: “The mistake you must never make about science fiction is in thinking that, because it is about the future, it is necessarily about the future.” Stanley Schmidt, the former editor of Analog, recently quoted Pohl’s reminder and followed it up with an observation of his own: “Writers in this field are seldom trying to predict what the future will be, but rather to imagine a wide range of ways it could be—and how each of them, if it came to pass, would affect our lives.” This is perfectly correct, but it’s also worth remembering why we do it. The novelist Georges Simenon stated that the goal of his fiction was to find situations that would oblige his characters “to go to their limit,” and that’s true of most good science fiction as well, with the difference that the inciting incident is something rooted, however tenuously, in scientific extrapolation. When choosing between futures, or between the consequences of a particular idea, we’re often less interested in what we think could actually happen than in what will put the most pressure on our characters, and, by extension, our readers. (This also explains why dystopian futures are so prevalent in fiction these days—they’re more immediately promising as a source of narrative material.) On its highest level, science fiction is about the possible, but in the trenches where readable stories are made, it’s often more about Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. And if that weren’t true, these stories probably wouldn’t exist at all.

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