Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Ben Bova
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Introduction: Ben Bova is best known as an author of numerous hard-science fiction novels, most recently the Grand Tour, in which he re-explores the Solar System planet-by-planet in the light of current scientific knowledge. The most recent of these is Leviathans of Jupiter (2011). He is also noted for the Sam Gunn series (collected as The Sam Gunn Omnibus, 2007), the Orion series, the Kinsman series, and for numerous stand-alone novels. He was a very successful editor of Analog between the years 1971 and 1978 (where he discovered, among other new writers, Orson Scott Card) and then fiction editor and later editorial director of Omni magazine (1978-82). He won the Hugo Award for Best Editor six times. He is President Emeritus of the National Space Society and served as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

SCHWEITZER: Could you describe your beginnings? How did you discover science fiction? What made you want to write it?

BOVA: I grew up in South Philadelphia during the Great Depression of the 1930s and, later, World War 2. I got turned on to astronomy when I was about 11: a class trip to Philadelphia's science museum, the Franklin Institute, included a visit to its planetarium. When they turned on the stars, I became instantly hooked on astronomy. In those days (circa 1943) there were a few far-seeing people who dreamed of building rockets and flying to the Moon. I became fascinated with rocketry and astronautics. Then I found that there were stories about doing such things. That's how I discovered science fiction. Mostly I read magazines such as Astounding (later renamed Analog). When I started writing, I wrote about what interested me: science fiction.

SCHWEITZER: Let's also talk about your science background. What did you do on the Vanguard project?

BOVA: I'm not a professional scientist. My degrees are in journalism, communications, and education. I had the good fortune to become a protégé of the director of the planetarium, Dr. I.M. Levitt, who led me to read widely in the sciences. I became a newspaper reporter, but when I learned that the U.S. would attempt to launch an artificial satellite during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) I talked myself into a job as a technical editor for the Glenn L. Martin Co. (now Lockheed Martin Corp.), on the basis that Vanguard would be very much in the public eye, and the project would need someone who could understand the engineers and translate what they were doing into prose that the general public could understand. I stayed with the project through the furor of Sputnik, Vanguard's dismal failure on its first attempt to launch a satellite, and finally through three successful satellite launches. I also met Arthur C. Clarke when he came to the Martin plant to gather material for a nonfiction book he was doing about "the first man-made satellite of Earth." Arthur and I remained good friends until his death.

SCHWEITZER: Were real rocket engineers and such people interested in science fiction in those days?

BOVA: Yes, some of them were. Many of them went into technical careers because they read science fiction in their youths.

SCHWEITZER: So how did you discover the science fiction community?

BOVA: I'd been reading science fiction, and trying to write it, for years and years before I found out that fandom existed. I was working as a technical editor on the Vanguard project, at the Martin Co. just outside Baltimore, when David Kyle phoned me. He had heard about me through a mutual friend; I had no idea who David was. He told me that he was helping to make arrangements for the World Science Fiction Convention that year (1956, if memory serves) in New York City. I had no idea that there were science fiction conventions. David asked if I could bring a couple of engineers from Vanguard to speak at the convention. I recruited the two top engineers on the project, and that Labor Day weekend we drove up to New York and the Biltmore Hotel.

We rode an elevator to the floor where the convention activities were taking place. The elevator doors opened, and there were fans of all sorts and descriptions, many of them in costumes of one sort or another. And smack in the middle of all this bustle was a seven-foot tall poster of some sci-fi monster, with Forrest J. Ackerman standing beside it, happily reading a copy of his own magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

My engineers were gray-flannel-suit types, narrow ties and button-down collars. They did a one-eighty and ducked back into the elevator. I had to tug them out, literally by their coattails. They were very apprehensive. But once I got them to the auditorium where they were to make their presentation, they were introduced to Arthur C. Clarke, Willy Ley, and others whom they knew by reputation as authorities in the field of rocketry. They settled down and gave their presentation. I must say that it was so dry that a lot of the audience got up and left. But they had a good time afterward with Arthur, Willy, et al.

SCHWEITZER: How long were you writing before you got anybody interested in anything you wrote? Did you get some of those legendary, long letters of rejection from John Campbell?

BOVA: The first letter I ever got from Campbell was a reaction to a letter of criticism I had sent about the scientific accuracy of a story he'd published. His letter began, "Okay, wise guy." It went on for several pages, and gradually I realized that John was challenging me to write a better story. Eventually I did.

The first short story I ever sent to a publisher was bought for a magnificent $5.00. This was a local magazine in Philadelphia, my home town. I cashed their check and rode the trolley car to see these magnificent people. Alas, their offices were padlocked! The magazine had gone broke. I wondered if my $5.00 had busted them. But it taught me an important lesson: Cash all checks immediately. Don't wait for the company to fold.

I wrote my first novel in 1949. It was never published; probably a good thing. I struggled for ten years, learning my craft the hard way. My first published novel was The Star Conquerors, which came out in 1959.

SCHWEITZER: What was your relationship with Campbell like? Were you one of those writers whom he took to lunch and then pitched ideas to?

BOVA: John Campbell was very kind to new writers, very solicitous. And he was a fountain of ideas. He spent the better part of his life striving to get writers to produce the kinds of stories that he wanted for Astounding/Analog. He discovered new talent and worked ceaselessly to develop it. He took me to lunch whenever I visited New York. He liked to challenge writers with intellectual puzzles, and many's the time a group of us sat around the lunch table trying to figure out the answer to his latest conundrum. John Campbell was one of a kind. What we call science fiction today is, in large part, what John decided the field should be.

SCHWEITZER: Did you ever have any difficulties with John Campbell's reported dogmatisms? There was a time when he was insisting that psionics was the essential "science" every SF writer should know. Your writings do not suggest you ever shared this view. How did you cope with the fact that this brilliant, mentoring figure could fall for things like the Dean Drive and the Hieronymus Machine?

BOVA: I think the talk about John's "dogmatisms" has been overblown. He never insisted that I write about certain subjects or include one of his pet hobbyhorses in any story I sent him. When John was first hired to edit Astounding Stories, he asked his boss, "What happens if I don't get enough good stories to fill the magazine?" The boss fixed him with a stern gaze and replied, "A good editor does." I firmly believe that from that moment on, John spent his energies on encouraging, cajoling, badgering writers into producing good stories for Astounding/Analog. His famous crotchets, such as the Dean Drive, et al., were a technique he used to get his writers to think outside the box, to try to go a step or two beyond themselves and produce new concepts. He never rejected a story of mine (or anyone else's, I daresay) because it didn't include whatever hobbyhorse he was riding at the time.

SCHWEITZER: How did it feel to fill his shoes? How did you become his successor?

BOVA: Fred Pohl once remarked, after hearing someone introduce me as the man who filled John Campbell's shoes, that I also filled his chair. I think was referring to the size of my butt. Be that as it may, it was exciting to be the editor of Analog. The management of The Condé Nast Publications, Inc., certainly provided me with all the encouragement they could, and Katherine Tarrant stayed on to help me find my way. Kay had been John's assistant since he'd started on the magazine in 1937.

How did I get the job? When John died so suddenly, the management asked Kay Tarrant to draw up a list of contributors to the magazine who had written both science fiction and science fact. Kay, in turn, asked half a dozen of the magazine's major contributors to draw up such lists. Apparently my name was on each one of them. A year after I started at Analog I asked the man who had hired me - who was now the president of Condé Nast - why he had picked me. After all, there were much more distinguished people available for the job. He told me that none of the "suits" in the company's management knew anything about Analog - except that it made a modest profit every month. They had been content to let Campbell run the show, and continue to bring in a profit. When he got the various lists of potential successors, he told me, he made it his business to read some of the fiction and some of the non-fiction that each person had written for the magazine. "Ben," he exclaimed, "you were the only guy I could understand!" Score one for an apprenticeship on newspapers, where clarity is vital.

SCHWEITZER: When you became editor of Analog, did you deliberately set out to do things differently? I can tell that as a reader at the time, the change seemed pretty dramatic to me. It had always seemed strange that Analog had not featured Larry Niven regularly, and as soon as you took over, it did.

BOVA: Actually, I tried to hew pretty close to Campbell's system. It was very successful, after all. Like John, I personally read all of the incoming manuscripts. I was fortunate enough to discover writers such as Orson Scott Card, Spider Robinson, Vonda McIntyre, and others. I helped to boost Joe Haldeman's fledgling career by publishing segments of what turned out to be his novel The Forever War. (I was able to help Joe Haldeman get his first novel, a YA titled War Year, published.)

But John and I were not the same person. I naturally had slightly different tastes, and I felt that Analog's readers would be open to a slightly wider variety of stories. And so they were, although a few of the old-timers complained about hints of sex in Haldeman and Fred Pohl's The Gold at the Starbow's End. It struck me, though, that Analog's readers had nowhere else to go! Even if the magazine changed a bit, they would stick with Analog because that was the only place they could find the kinds of stories they enjoyed reading. I learned that I could get out in front of the readership by a few paces, and they would follow me. On the other hand, there were marvelous stories that I had to reject - some of them by close friends of mine - because they were too far from the Analog type. I published some of those stories when I went to Omni. Even over a span of several years, the writers had been unable to find a publisher for them.

SCHWEITZER: Did you also try to feed ideas to writers the way Campbell did? I gather that part of his technique was to start a friendly Socratic argument, perhaps taking an outrageous position to stimulate thinking.

BOVA: I did that on a few occasions, although I found that the stories pouring into Analog had enough new ideas in them so that I didn't have to do much prodding. That wasn't my style, anyway. I remember once asking a few writers what the world would be like if Germany and Japan had decided to go for world domination commercially, instead of militarily. Gene Wolfe responded with, "How I Lost the Second War . . ." A neat story in which Volkswagens and transistors conquer the world. I bounced another idea off several writers, who gave me nothing but blank stares. So I wrote the story myself; it was the first of the Sam Gunn stories.

SCHWEITZER: Now I know it was always the rule that the editor of Analog could not write for Analog, but were you able to go on writing fiction while editing the magazine?

BOVA: Since I'm mainly a novelist, I continued writing novels, although the workload at Analog cut into my writing time considerably. My one regret about taking the Analog job was that I was unable to serialize my novel Millennium in the magazine. John and I had talked about it, and he liked what he saw of the novel. Incidentally, I had to write an editorial every month. That was demanding, too: being brilliant every thirty days.

SCHWEITZER: So, tell me a little about being fiction editor for Omni. How did that happen?

BOVA: After seven years of editing Analog I retired from editing. My income from writing supported me nicely, and I had always wanted to be a full-time writer. So I left Analog. In the meantime, Bob Guccione and Kathy Keeton (the woman Bob eventually married) showed me their plans for a magazine they called Nova and asked me to edit it for them. I declined, telling them I would love to write for their magazine, but I was retiring from editing. Then they asked me to recommend a fiction editor for Nova. I recommended Diana King, who had earlier been my assistant at Analog. They hired Diana, who ran off to get married just as the first issue of Omni (nee Nova) was going to press. I got a call from Guccione, who told me that he didn't have a fiction editor and it was my fault. I agreed to sit in at the fiction desk until Bob and Kathy could find another editor. I enjoyed the job immensely. Among other delights, I was able to buy stories that I had rejected at Analog because they didn't fit the hard-core science fiction criteria. Within a year I was editorial director of Omni and having the time of my life. I had deliberately kept my salary low, so that I could walk away without any financial problems. But the perks were fantastic! My wife, Barbara, and I traveled the world first class. Finally, after four years, I tendered my resignation and - at last - turned to writing full-time. Omni was selling more than a quarter-million copies per month at that point, with an estimated readership of five million.

SCHWEITZER: Did you have any sense, as editor either of Analog or Omni, that you could lead the field and reshape it in some desired direction? In both cases you would have had some leverage, since you were editing the highest-paying market in the field. We all know how John Campbell recreated science fiction in the first ten years or so of his editorship. So did you have any sense of doing something similar?

BOVA: No. By the time I became editor of Analog, the field had matured - largely thanks to Campbell's unceasing efforts. My aim at Analog was to continue what Campbell had started, widening the choice of stories a bit because I felt that a new generation of readers was ready to accept stories that were more mature in dealing with sexual relationships. At Omni I could publish stories that were outside the "hard sf" type, because Omni's readers were much more varied than Analog's.

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk about your writing a little, and related matters. Most of your SF has been very much of the hard-science type. I take it you must find the frontiers of science stimulating for story creation rather than inhibiting, as some writers do. Is there any secret for turning a scientific notion into a story.

BOVA: I write "hard" science fiction because I've been interested in scientific research since I was a pre-teen. I started by being turned on to astronomy. This led me to rocketry and astronautics - and to reading science fiction. I have worked with engineers and scientists most of my adult life. So when I started writing seriously, naturally I wrote about what - and who - I knew best. I find that the nexus where scientific research and politics interact is not only interesting story material, but vitally important to the success of our society and the well-being of everyone in it. If there's a secret to turning a scientific notion into a story, it is to understand the science, and understand who it will help, and hurt.

SCHWEITZER: Do you feel that science fiction has any didactic or educational purpose? I know you have been a long-time advocate of space exploration, and of course much of your fiction - notably the recent series in which you have visited the planets of the solar system one by one - certainly seems to be tailored to encourage further interest in this area. Is it possible that what some fans have called "the Gernsback Delusion" (the idea that science fiction exists to teach and stimulate interest in science) is not a delusion after all?

BOVA: I think that stimulating interest in science is a byproduct of science fiction, not its primary purpose. The primary purpose of science fiction, like any type of fiction, is to show ourselves to ourselves. In science fiction we can use exotic backgrounds and unique moral dilemmas to reveal the workings of the human soul. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that many youngsters have been turned on to science by reading science fiction. Some of those kids grew up to walk on the Moon. One of the things that science fiction stories accomplish is to show readers the wonders of the universe, and the thrill of discovery. Science classes in school can be dull, because science courses of necessity have to begin with the basics. Science fiction stories can skip over the basics and show how exciting the quest for knowledge can be.

SCHWEITZER: So do you have any sense that some current science fiction has lost its nerve and is turning away from the future? What's to be done about it? Or are we doomed to be overwhelmed by urban fantasies, alternate history, and Harry Potter knockoffs?

BOVA: I think you're seeing the glass half-empty. Science fiction ideas and ideals permeate the entertainment industry nowadays. True, the "hard core" stuff is only a small percentage of what the SF field is publishing at present. But to me, that's the heart of the field. As the audience for SF has expanded, naturally the field has widened. Which is cause, which is effect? I think there is still some good "hard" science fiction being written, and read.

SCHWEITZER: What are you working on now?

BOVA: It's another novel in the Grand Tour series, titled Farside. It's about building an astronomical facility on the side of the Moon that never faces Earth, and will be a bridge that moves the series beyond the solar system.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Ben.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by