Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 22
Love, Cayce
by Marie Brennan
Exodus Tides
by Aliette de Bodard
Exiles of Eden
by Brad R. Torgersen
The Long Way Home
by G. Norman Lippert
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Bus Stop
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Robert Silverberg
    by Darrell Schweitzer

SCHWEITZER: Let me start with what is doubtless on your fans' minds these days. Have you really retired from writing fiction? If so, why? Maybe it's because I haven't been at it as long or with such intensity, but I find it hard to understand why someone would stop writing when they still could.

SILVERBERG: The only thing I've retired from is writing novels. After I wrote The Longest Way Home, somewhere around 2002, I said I would not write any more novels, and I haven't, despite several offers from publishers. I just don't want to make the big commitment of time and stamina that a novel would require. But I've continued to do short stories and even the occasional novella, like the recent Last Song of Orpheus, and in fact I finished a new short story this very month. And I still do essays for Asimov's SF and introductions for other people's books. I won't deny, though, that I'm far less active as a writer than I once was. I'm 76, after all; writing takes time and energy; there are still a lot of things I want to do in the time that is remaining to me, other than writing more science fiction. And it isn't as though my existing bibliography is a skimpy one.

SCHWEITZER: Is fiction writing for you a job or a compulsion?

SILVERBERG: Probably both. The fact that I've written so much over the years, even after economic pressures ceased to be a driving factor, very likely indicates that something within me keeps pushing me to move words around on paper. I've been doing it, after all, for seventy years or so, if you count the little stories I was writing in the third grade. And I don't seem to stop.

SCHWEITZER: Has this changed for you over time?

SILVERBERG: I write more slowly than I once did, and I spend much less of my time each year doing it. I don't think there's anything unusual about that. Some writers stay prolific to the end, like Frederick Faust (Max Brand), but Faust died when he was in his fifties. I wonder if he'd still have been knocking them out at the old rate if he had lived another twenty years. Another of my prolific heroes, Georges Simenon, was 68 or so when he wrote his last novel. (Though he did go on compulsively writing autobiographical works to the end of his days.)

SCHWEITZER: Do you find yourself, after all this time, comparing your career with those of other writers? (Here you are citing Frederick Faust and Georges Simenon.) I suppose we must all look with envy on the career of Jack Williamson, or on Gene Wolfe, who seems to be at the top of his game and turning out novels at great speed at80.

SILVERBERG: Envy is not much of a psychological issue for me, and never has been. I've been able to sell everything I write and have it appear in the places where I want it to appear, and the success of other writers is something I cheer, not bemoan. Sure, I'd like to have Stephen King's income or Neil Gaiman's popularity with huge crowds of readers, but my work is not much like theirs, is not likely to appeal to great multitudes of readers outside the central SF audience, and so be it.

The only writers I ever compared myself with were Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley, back at the beginning of my career nearly sixty years ago. They were quick, clever, prolific writers, and I wanted to have the same sort of careers they had. I kept count of the number of stories they had published, studied their work carefully to see how they did it, watched their progress with immense admiration that I guess could be seen as a kind of envy. In time I became as prolific and widely published as they were, they both became my friends, and I stopped keeping count of their published stories. (And I hardly envied the courses of their lives as they unfolded, with Dick dying young and Sheckley going through all manner of career and financial problems. I could never have imagined, back there in 1952, that they would finish so badly).

Simenon and Faust also were writers I admired rather than envied. I saw them as gifted predecessors whose productivity over an extended period I hoped to emulate. But emulating Jack Williamson would be a fool's game: Jack was a unique figure in our field, endowed with extraordinary longevity and remarkable lucidity of mind right to the end of his long life, and I applaud him without any expectation of doing what he did. Staking any emotional capital on the notion of following his path and winning Hugos and Nebulas in my nineties would be just plain silly. As for Gene Wolfe, yes, he's doing great things at an advanced age, but I regard Gene as a late starter: I began publishing in my teens and have been a full-time writer for nearly six decades, whereas he entered the field ten or twelve years after me and continued to hold down his day job until he was in his fifties or sixties. Writing is something he does for the love of it; to some degree that's true of me, of course, but it has also been my only job for all these years. I've done an enormous amount of hard work over those six decades and it should surprise no one that I want to cut back on my output now.

SCHWEITZER: In any case, any retirement you declare for yourself now must be on a very different basis than the last time, circa 1977. Then the backlash against the New Wave was in full blast, and the publishing world's idea of SF seemed to be Laser Books or Star Wars knockoffs. It must have been a very grim time to be a science fiction writer with any serious ambition. Was it?

SILVERBERG: It certainly was. A bunch of us tried to remake the field in the 1967-72 period with a burst of original and creative science fiction, and we were greeted with vast indifference and even overt hostility by most of the readers. It became very difficult for the best people of that group -- Joanna Russ, Chip Delany, Tom Disch, Norman Spinrad, John Brunner, Barry Malzberg, to name just some of them -- to earn any kind of livelihood writing SF, and most of them turned to other fields of endeavor. Because I had built up more economic security than most by virtue of my prolificacy, I shrugged an angry shrug and walked away from writing altogether, and stayed away for nearly five years. This time around, as I slide gradually into retirement, I'm still not happy with the course that commercial SF publishing in the States has taken since the collapse of the New Wave a generation ago, but I'm not angry -- just interested in slowing down, relaxing, living the sort of life that most people my age do.

SCHWEITZER: The story goes that when he was very old, Picasso was asked by a reporter, "What are you doing now?" and he said, "I'm looking for a new style." Are there always, likewise, new horizons for the writer?

SILVERBERG: I suppose. Not for this one. I've had my turn as a revolutionary. Any writing I do from here on in is going to be very much like the sort of writing I did in the past.

SCHWEITZER: If you've been writing for seventy years and are now seventy-six, that means you must have started writing when you were six? That does suggest it's inborn, doesn't it? How long before you knew that this was to be your life's work?

SILVERBERG: My earliest published work was done for my elementary-school newspaper when I was, as I said, in the third grade. I also began writing little stories about the same time. (I continued to do school-newspaper work all the way; I was the editor of my junior-high paper and my high-school paper, and when I was at Columbia I was the drama reviewer for the university paper.) I was fairly late discovering science fiction -- I was about ten -- and didn't write my first SF story until I was nearly thirteen. But I made up for that slow start later on.

Somewhere along the way -- probably in junior high school -- it occurred to me that being a writer was probably what I was going to do when I grew up. By the time I was in my late teens, it was clear to me and everybody around me that a writer was what I was, and I never deviated from that path after that.

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk a minute about being a "revolutionary." During the New Wave era you weren't particularly given to rewriting Finnegans Wake as science fiction or constructing a story entirely out of typographical tricks (the way Donald Barthelme has done on occasion), much less any of the extreme oddities of J.G. Ballard. It seems to me that when you were writing things like Nightwings or Downward to the Earth or Dying Inside, you were writing what was recognizably science fiction, only better, with more emotional depth and maturity. So what exactly didn't the readers want?

SILVERBERG: I was never as radical an experimenter as some of the New Worlds crowd in the Moorcock period, say, or as downbeat as Ballard, or as radical in my world-view as Delany, but Son of Man, which I wrote in 1969, was far-out plotless stuff, some of my short stories of the period had a distinct Barthelmian absurdist flavor, one ("Many Mansions") was a pastiche of a Robert Coover piece, Dying Inside was mainstream in tone though built around a science-fictional concept, and Book of Skulls was or was not science fiction, depending on how you interpreted the ambiguous information about the immortals in the Arizona desert. So, all in all, I had moved quite a distance from the standard pulp tropes and what I was writing, though I regarded all of it as recognizably science fiction as I understood the term, was very far from what Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke had done. (It was not that far from Sturgeon or Bradbury or Leiber.) Nightwings was still straight SF and won a Hugo, but I wrote that in 1968. By the time of Skulls and Dying Inside, a few years later, the majority of the readers had turned hostile to my work, or so it seemed to me, and that was when I decided to give up writing.

SCHWEITZER: In any case, when you do something innovative, isn't it inherent in the nature of such an enterprise that you are going to leave some of the duller or lazier readers behind? Surely when Bester wrote The Stars My Destination he left Captain Future fans behind him in the dust. Is this a problem?

SILVERBERG: It was a long way from Captain Future to The Stars My Destination, sure. But for all its verbal and conceptual brilliance, Stars still followed the pulp conventions, sturdy hero triumphing over his adversaries. In a lot of my work of the period the hero wasn't all that sturdy and he didn't always triumph.

SCHWEITZER: Or was it more of an economic issue, that, say, Son of Man or The Book of Skulls did not sell as well as the latest post-Tolkien knockoff trilogy, and publishers were beginning to notice?

SILVERBERG: Nobody ever expected those two books to outsell the standard kind of SF. (The trilogy boom had not yet really begun.) My publishers were still willing to buy from me. But I had lost heart. I was very tired, having done something like fifteen novels in just a few years and most of them very exhausting things to write. I just wanted to go away and rest. And I did.

SCHWEITZER: Would you say then that Lord Valentine's Castle and sequels were a successful compromise, then, i.e. something which fit the current taste but which you could still write with integrity?

SILVERBERG: Yes. It's a cheerful, positive book full of interesting ideas, and the protagonist comes out okay at the end, but it is recognizably Silverbergian in style. Nothing experimental about it, but nothing that was written down for a slow-witted audience, either.

SCHWEITZER: An aside, now that I've mentioned the title. I have seen a reissue of The Book of Skulls that says "soon to be a major motion picture" or something like that. But no movie. What has happened to it?

SILVERBERG: It went right to the edge of production -- a director had been chosen, even. (William Friedkin.) Then the head of the studio, who was Friedkin's wife, lost her job and all her projects were canceled. You grow used to this sort of thing when you deal with Hollywood; you cash the check and hope for the best, and it's foolish to expect anything good to happen beyond that, though sometimes it does.

SCHWEITZER: You've seen movements come and go in SF by now. The early '50s seems to have been a fairly revolutionary period. The New Wave is surely assimilated by now, to the extent that writers who grew up on the New Wave are now influencing younger writers. One might argue that Slipstream is the New Wave all over again, only with fewer science fiction tropes. So, what do you make of this? Are we going to be looking at revolution and reaction followed by complacency followed by revolution over and over, forever?

SILVERBERG: That's what I would expect. This sort of cycle has been going on since Gernsback days. The Sloane Amazing, in 1933, began running astonishing semi-abstract covers by an artist named Sigmond. Like nothing SF mags had ever seen before. (Or pretty much since.) The readers rose up in fury and the magazine reverted, in 1934 and 1935, to some of the dreariest illustrative covers ever seen in the field. I know, this is illustration, not fiction, but it indicates that any attempt to change the formulas brings, usually, a reaction, and often an overreaction.

SCHWEITZER: I've seen those covers and know what you mean. Then again, Gernsback experimented with abstract covers on Wonder Stories about the same time. There was one that was little more than a field of dots. It must not have gone over very well with the readers, because it was soon stopped.

But maybe you're basically right. Robert E. Howard remarked in the middle '30s that he didn't want to write SF, because it was far more formulaic than other forms of pulp fiction such as westerns or sport stories, and the readers would howl if there was the slightest departure from formula. But is this still the case? Do you think that SF is inherently conservative? If so, isn't it an odd paradox that this literature which is supposedly about the future and limitless horizons rejects new approaches?

SILVERBERG: I do. What a lot of us tend to forget from time to time is that SF in the United States is a branch of popular entertainment, not a kind of avant-garde literature. There's a certain core of readers looking for sophisticated visionary experiences, sure, but most of the audience is just interested in finding an hour's light entertainment. When that substantial portion of the audience runs up against fiction that is difficult to read (Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head, for example) or difficult to understand (a lot of the modern high-tech stuff) or heavily downbeat (Ballard, let's say) it goes off in search of something more to its taste. I guess it's paradoxical that so many readers of a kind of fiction that deals in infinite horizons of time and space want the same old thing every time, but that's the way it is, and so be it.

SCHWEITZER: If so, then what makes it worthwhile for a writer to struggle against what he knows the readers actually want?

SILVERBERG: We don't always realize that we're doing that. Even as sharp-eyed an observer of trends and tastes as, ah, Robert Silverberg failed to notice that he was swimming upstream all through 1969 and 1970 and 1971. Then, too, some of us write just for the pleasure of it, and don't give a damn about commercial requirements. To a certain degree that's what I was doing during my big creative period in the late sixties. And some of us are very obstinate.

SCHWEITZER: Do you read enough contemporary SF to have any sense of the state of the field today?

SILVERBERG: No. I read hardly any, these days.

SCHWEITZER: Do you have any sense that anybody is standing on your shoulders?

SILVERBERG: I'd like to think so. When Elizabeth Bear complained that the older writers don't read the newer ones, I made a point of reading some stories by three of the writers she cited and saw distinct signs of my influence on all three. It may have been at second or third remove, but I do believe the fiction I wrote in the 1967-73 period, and some of the later work, had a lasting impact.

SCHWEITZER: As for what the readers allegedly did not like in your work in the early '70s, I can't help but notice that books like Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls have shown real staying power. Particularly Dying Inside is now regarded as a classic. So, what happened? Might it not be that the conventional book will be easily replaced by another conventional book, but that the unique one, even if it sells fewer copies at first, can't be and therefore stays in print?

SILVERBERG: They don't stay in print. They have to be brought back, again and again. Each time they find a new (small) audience, and eventually they slip out of sight again, and then some adventurous new publisher takes a chance on them, with the same result. I've been assiduous in finding new publishers for my books, but, then, I'm alive to do it. Sturgeon and Blish and Kornbluth aren't, and but for the work of some dedicated small presses they'd be forgotten today.

SCHWEITZER: Isn't it some cause for optimism that publishers keep trying? After all, in today's market very little stays continuously in print. I can cite an example. I found a letter in a 1972 fanzine in which James Blish is bemoaning the fact that one of his short story collections published in mass-market paperback by Ballantine (he doesn't give the title but is probably talking about So Close to Home, 1961) has "died the death" and gone out of print after eleven years. You know better than I do how that just does not compute in modern publishing terms. Story collection by a midlist writer? In mass-market paperback? In print for eleven years? Who could imagine it today?

SILVERBERG: Publishing has changed quite a bit since then. Books like the Blish collection, and Son of Man and a lot of other off-beat things, were published by Ballantine before it morphed into Del Rey. Betty Ballantine loved her authors and coddled them, and was willing to publish things that could be seen a priori not to have big commercial futures; she would stand behind those books for years. She ran the company as an expression of her personal tastes and counted on big sellers like her Clarke books to carry the rest along. Eventually the Ballantines had to sell their company. There may be a connection there.

SCHWEITZER: I'd like to posit something to you about Dying Inside. Is this the last major psi novel? Of course you were working in the field when psi was everywhere and John Campbell seemed to think it was an "essential science" on which science fiction had to be based, just like physics or astronomy. But while there have been novels since which have had psi as one component among many, I cannot think of a later one (within the SF category, not counting something like Stephen King's Firestarter) in which psi is the primary subject. So, were you in any sense consciously bidding farewell to this old and tired SF trope? I can well imagine that John W. Campbell would not have approved.

SILVERBERG: I wouldn't know. Probably there have been psi novels since mine, but I haven't been aware of them. Campbell, of course, would not have cared much for Dying Inside, because of its near-contemporary setting, the sex, the mainstream tone. There was some irony in the book's getting a special award from the Campbell Award people (not the worldcon award, the other Campbell award.) And the same year Barry Malzberg won that Campbell award for as unCampbellian a book as could be imagined this side of Samuel Beckett.

SCHWEITZER: While I've brought his name up, could you describe your working relationship with John Campbell? Is it true that you and Randall Garrett used to race each other to see who could sell Campbell a story based on one of his editorials? Or is this just fannish legend?

SILVERBERG: No, not true. John wanted his writers to pay attention to his editorials, but he didn't want them simply to feed his own ideas back to him, and he rejected stories that were of that sort. What he wanted was to establish a sort of Socratic dialog, the writers working with the concepts in the editorials but adding their own spin. Poul Anderson was better at this than anyone, though Garrett did it well. There was a distinct Campbell "slant" and we all knew what it was -- he disliked stories in which aliens get the upper hand over humans, for example -- but selling stories to him was not the simple button-pushing business fans think it was.

I did try to push buttons, now and then. Garrett and I used a Scottish protagonist, Duncan MacLeod, for an early story, and sold it to John. John was always partial to Scots. I wrote some stories for Horace Gold in which people were confined in close quarters, as Horace was, and he bought them. But when Garrett and I concocted a story for Tony Boucher, who was Catholic, a notorious opera-lover and cat-lover, and an expert on detective stories, about an opera-loving priest whose cat solved a murder mystery, Tony rejected it with a grin of appreciation for the stunt -- but rejected it all the same. (Bob Lowndes, who was an Anglican but otherwise shared Tony's interests, bought it.)

SCHWEITZER: Surely the trick is to not let the editor know his buttons are being pushed. Besides, that kind of stunt writing is something you do when you're younger, isn't it? Do you find as you get older that you're less interested in writing stories which are contrivances aimed at a market?

SILVERBERG: I certainly don't aim at markets, these days. Everything I write is sold before I write it, so why twist myself out of shape to meet someone else's slant? But stunt writing -- well, yes, I still enjoy doing that, writing a story in the voice Jack Vance used in The Dying Earth, or doing a novella interwoven with "Vintage Season" to tell the other side of the story, or playing around with themes out of Conrad.

SCHWEITZER: So, what are you writing these days?

SILVERBERG: Not much. I did two Majipoor stories this winter to round out a collection I'm assembling, and a Time Patrol story for a Poul Anderson memorial anthology. But I've got nothing on my schedule now except a lot of introductions to reissues of old work of mine. For the time being I want to take a break from writing fiction, and I don't know how long that break is going to last -- six months, a year, forever, maybe. I can't say. And won't. Lord knows I've written quite a few stories for one human being in one lifetime, and I don't feel enormous inner pressure to add to the list.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Bob.

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