Samuel Delany has said, “Every writer of satirical or humorous science fiction stories since the Fifties is indebted to William Tenn.” From 1946 through 1967, London-born author Philip Klass, using the pen name “William Tenn,” regularly produced courageous and innovative stories that expressed a profound faith in the persistence of human stupidity. Writing in an era when science fiction stories usually portrayed the capacity of human beings to surmount extraordinary difficulties by dint of their intelligence and resourcefulness, William Tenn created a canon of stories about human beings who, faced with extraordinary difficulties, tend to die horribly. Describing his view of humanity, he has said, “I am thinking not of man in the form of a statue standing on tiptoe pointing toward the stars; I am thinking of man in a smelly urinal scratching under his left armpit.”
In recent decades, Philip Klass has been a fixture of academic conferences and journals, tirelessly promoting the practice of taking science fiction seriously in academia.1
Now eighty-three years old, Klass lives with his wife and daughter in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Paradoxa found him eager to discuss his life and work, the meaning of his Jewishness and of science fiction, and the literary circles in which he has moved.
Philip Klass: I’m very impressed to see that there’s a journal like Paradoxa. A scholarly journal. When I was teaching English at Penn State between 1968 and 1988, they were kind and generous to a fault; but at no time did they let me forget that I was one of the unwashed because I was a writer of science fiction. One fellow said to me, “It’s good stuff, but it’s not entirely kosher.”
The Associate Head of the English department had a wife named Gladys who was a holy terror. Every time we had a lecturer or visiting scholar, she would present various members of the department to the guest; and when she got to me, she would say, “This is Phil Klass: he writes science fiction. Our children read that.” Now, on one occasion, after she’d done this a few times, I found myself at a party at her house. And when I was ready to leave, I went to the bedroom to retrieve my coat. There beside the bed were piles of sf paperbacks. And there were no children in the house. So you see, she’d been covering for herself.
Josh Lukin: Your books contain only a paragraph of biography, saying that you were born in London and are named Philip Klass. Could you say more about your life?
PK: My father had to flee England under circumstances that I discuss in the afterword to my story “The Deserter” in Immodest Proposals. He was a European Socialist from Lithuania. He was a deserter from the Army and a clearly-labeled subversive. He was being hunted down. He was living in an attic room without any windows. There was a price on his head; there was a reward out for him, dead or alive. My mother was a very bright lower-class Cockney Jewish woman. She had met him before all this happened, and they married during it, and she was one of the few people able to visit him when he was in hiding. My father felt that he had no chance to be rehabilitated in England, so he got aboard with the help of union friends, socialist friends, on an ocean liner as a stoker. He stoked his way across the Atlantic and jumped ship when he got to New York, under a different name. That was in 1921. Then through friends in the United States he managed to bring my mother over. So I came here when I was about a year and a half old, on the ship Aquitainia, with my mother.
My father was an illegal alien through all of my childhood, adolescence, and young manhood, under sentence of death in England. If he were ever caught he would be deported as an alien to England. Which affected our lives tremendously. We lived under that, and therefore none of us became citizens. My brother and sister were born in America, so they were automatically citizens. But my mother and I did not become citizens because we expected possibly that we would have to go back with my father if he were deported. I became a citizen when I was drafted into the Army. I became a citizen at the American Embassy in London. When I came back to vote, I was asked “Where born?” “London, England.” “Where naturalized?” “London, England.” Which confused everybody tremendously.
We lived in Brooklyn throughout my childhood. What was then not a very bad slum but is now a pretty awful slum: East New York, Brownsville. Which was a Jewish community — a Yiddish community —
JL: Described in your story —
PK: “My Mother Was a Witch.” Yeh. I went to both the Hebrew School and to the Workmen’s Circle schools as a boy. My father was an atheist, but as he put it, he was an Orthodox atheist; and he only went to Orthodox services. He went so he could argue with people —
JL: He knew what the God he didn’t believe in expected of him.
So I lived in Brooklyn. I went to City College and later NYU in my late teens, after graduation from high school. The high school I went to had a tremendous effect upon me. Arthur Miller graduated from that high school about a year or two before me. Almost all the kids in my class went on to do interesting and complicated things, especially in the arts. It was Abraham Lincoln High School — Coney Island and Brighton Beach. I never completed college. The Army sent me to the University of Pittsburgh and later I went to Columbia and the New School. I have more than one and a half times the credit I needed for graduation, but I didn’t have a major. At NYU, for example, when I was a pre-med student officially, I took almost all my courses in the graduate school, for which as an undergraduate I got no credit. I took a tremendous number of courses in medieval English and medieval literature, which fascinated me — that was where I wanted to go at one time. The medieval period has always been particularly interesting to me because it is one human civilization which is graspable and encapsulated, it always seemed to me.
Before the war I tried to volunteer for Spain, the Spanish Civil War. They turned me down because I was too young. I desperately wanted to go to Spain and die in Spain for the Loyalist cause. I mean, that’s how I thought of it. I wanted to die in Spain, fighting against fascism. I was turned down. I had various friends who came back later from Spain and were very bitter about their experiences. It took me a long time to swallow that bitterness; it took me a long time to be able to read Homage to Catalonia and really go through the whole book.
When war came, I tried to volunteer as a Marine, in the Air Corps, and in the Navy, and I was turned down because of my vision. I was eventually drafted by the Army, and I went wholeheartedly. I was trained in every branch of the Army except the Finance Corps, moving around from area to area, getting Basic Training in different areas. I was trained in Quartermaster, Engineers, Infantry, Artillery. Finally, they pulled me out of routine duty and sent me to the Army Specialist Training Program, which sent me to the University of Pittsburgh, where I spent a year studying Serbo-Croatian language and literature and culture; and there were twenty-five of us who received the highest possible language aptitude ratings. The son of Heywood Broun was one of the twenty-five; the man who later became my attorney, Milton Amgott, was another. After graduation, most of the guys were sent to the Pacific, where there was little opportunity to practice their Serbo-Croatian. I was sent to the Engineers. Later, when we got into Europe, we did liberate a DP camp, which I was placed in charge of while my unit moved on, because it was mostly Serbians there. I did also see a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, about five days after liberation.
At this point, my father was dying, and I received an emergency furlough to go home and see him. The war in Europe was over, and the idea was, I would get the furlough, spend fourteen days in the United States, and then go on to the Pacific. While I was traveling across the ocean in a Liberty ship with a number of other men who were getting emergency furloughs or being discharged — this was already in August 1945 — they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then a week later on Nagasaki, and this was my first ethical crossroads. Because I had told all Germans that they were guilty even if they hadn’t been official Nazis: they’d had the good of it, as I put it — clothes, food, everything, from all of Europe, and from the Jews, and they had enjoyed it, and therefore they were culpable and responsible. And now that the atomic bomb was dropped, I knew that it would not be a furlough; it would probably be a discharge in the United States, I wouldn’t have to go on to Japan, which I didn’t want to do; and I sat behind a bulkhead and thought about it and thought about the fact that I had the good of it, and I accepted that responsibility. I knew what an atomic bomb was — most of the people on the ship did not — and I said, “I accept my good fortune from this hour.” And it was, as I said, my first major ethical crossroads. It changed me a lot.
I came back to the States and got a job. My father was dead: I had to support my sister and my mother. My brother was in the Merchant Marine. So I got a job in the Army radio/radar lab as a technical editor. I had a tremendous commute, several hours each way, and I felt I was trapped for the rest of my life, or for a large part of my life. So I began writing commercial fiction, which I had attempted before, but not very seriously. I’d written a lot in my college magazines and college newspapers. And I saw myself as a writer, but now I began writing commercial fiction just to get out of what I was in. And I tried writing everything: love stories, adventure stories, Western stories, true confessions, popular articles, science fiction. I’d been a science fiction fan — not an organized Fan — before the war, and read a lot of science fiction. But I was just trying to get a pulp magazine story published. And the first story that sold went to a science fiction magazine, Astounding.
I used a different pen name in all the stories I sent out — almost all writers used pen names — and the first story that sold used the pen name William Tenn.
JL: Where did that come from?
PK: Random. And from a name that was as much like mine as I could think of, a two-syllable first name and a one-syllable last name, with double consonants at the end. Also, to make a memorable name, I took the number ten and added an “n” to it: I thought it might be memorable. And finally from the fact that I felt one day I might use my own name. And I didn’t think I would write necessarily better stuff, but I felt I would write different stuff. And so I have found: I’ve been working, off and on, on a long novel under the name Philip Klass. It’s not better. In fact, it’s about science fiction. But it’s quite different. It’s — um — not clever.
JL: You didn’t know that there was another guy who was to write under that name about UFOs, eh?
PK: Well, I didn’t. He [Philip J. Klass] began writing about the same time I did. He was born in the same month I was and in the same year. He has the same number of siblings and the same sex siblings as I do. We receive checks meant for each other. We receive invitations meant for each other. After I wrote “Project Hush,” which is a humorous story about a moon landing, he was invited to the War College to deliver a lecture and he went with all kinds of material about aviation, and halfway through his lecture, I was told, an admiral stood up and said, “This is all very well, Mr. Klass, but when are you going to get funny again?” And he got very angry at me.
So I heard about him around this time  and I sent him a letter telling him I’d like to meet him: I’d heard about him and I’d heard we were the same age and that sort of thing, and he sent a letter back saying he was not interested in meeting a crazy beardnik who lived in the Village. Years later, he had read some of my stuff and he sent me a letter, saying he’d like to meet me after all, and I couldn’t resist writing him a note saying I’m not interested in meeting any sane non-beardniks who don’t even live in the Village. And we did correspond after that. He has sent me some books, and he once asked me for a book, On the Madness of Crowds, which he couldn’t get, and I sent him a copy.
When I appeared on the David Susskind show, Susskind said he’d wanted to invite both of us to appear on a program entitled “Flying Saucers Pro and Flying Saucers Con: Philip Klass vs. Philip Klass.” But I told him I couldn’t in all conscience take the “pro” side. I do believe in the possibility of flying saucers, but I don’t believe in the kind of people who have had experiences with them. They make me very jumpy.
In any event, after I began publishing, I moved away from home. I moved to the Village and spent a number of lovely years there.
JL: Were you a member of the White Horse crowd with Mailer, Styron...
PK: ... Dylan Thomas, Herman Wouk? I went there a couple of times. Mostly with my friend Calder Willingham. I talked to Dylan Thomas a bit. I talked to Wouk once or twice.
I felt sorry for Mailer. His milieu had disappeared. His milieu, even after he’d made it, was still the Group Theatre. And New Masses. He should have been writing for that.
Dylan Thomas was a tremendously talented person — a great writer. In person, he came across as a fat, dribbling, drooling, drunken slob. For years after he died, you could go to bed with a woman in Greenwich Village, and somewhere during the night she would inform you that she was the woman who’d lost her virginity to Dylan Thomas the night he died. It happened to me eight or ten times. He was a very romantic figure. And he had a tremendous impact upon young people.
Willingham was a very talented guy who somehow never fulfilled his early promise. He’s still known for his screenplays — the movie of Rambling Rose, The Graduate, Paths of Glory. Not The Vikings, although that one made him a lot of money. But I’m talking about his novels — he saw himself at the end still basically as a novelist. Rambling Rose was the closest he came to doing what he wanted to do. That, and I still feel Geraldine Bradshaw, which was completely overlooked, dismissed — what happened was when he wrote End As a Man, he was a pupil, a pupil in the classic sense, of James T. Farrell. And Farrell wrote the initial review of End As a Man for the New York Times. And the book became a bestseller. By the time he wrote Geraldine Bradshaw he had broken with Farrell. They had very little to do with each other. And he had gone off in his own direction. He and Farrell had exchanged very many bitter words. But the word went out that he was a pupil of Farrell. And so a tremendous number of reviewers attacked it as “another one of those Farrell books.” And it died. It died. It died absolutely. Look at the blurbs on the cover: when they have to use quotes from The Gary Post-Tribune, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Providence Journal, you know that it did not do well. I consider it a superb novel. I wrote an article about it which was reprinted in Playboy, in which I said it was damn close to being another Huckleberry Finn. I really don’t know whether I should have gone that far, but I liked it that much. And his last novel, Rambling Rose, is the downside — or rather the upside — of Geraldine Bradshaw.
The sequel, Reach to the Stars, contains his attempts to write science fiction.
JL: It’s like a strange amalgam of Day of the Locust and What Mad Universe.
PK: You won’t hear an argument from me. He wanted to know my opinion of the science fiction stuff in there, of which I told him, “It fits. It does what it’s supposed to do.” That’s all I could say of it.
I have almost a complete collection of his books, inscribed to me. In one of them, Natural Child, he wrote, “I inscribe this to Phil Klass, also known as William Tenn, who lives in the Village, and will get there sometime next year, and will sit down with an old dog, and will patiently help it discover fleas.”
He and I had lived with the same woman: that’s how we met. I lived with a woman named Jean Martinet, to whom that book is dedicated. He had lived with her a year before me. And after he got married and his first book was published, he came calling on her and she introduced him to me. We became very good friends. And when I broke up with Jean, at the same time he broke up with his first wife. And we saw each other a good deal.
He was essentially a Southerner who came to New York and said, “Jews are the only smart people here.” And he was a very strange guy. His first wife was Jewish. I was involved at one time with a woman called Georgette Metheaux, who was Alsatian. And Calder, when he was seeing Janey, who became his second wife, came up to me one day and said, “You are not serious about Georgette, are you?” And I said, “I am. Why?” And he said, “Well, you’re not thinking of marrying her, are you?” And I said, “I am. Why?” He said, “Well, Phil, I wish you wouldn’t.” He said, “One day, I’m afraid you’ll wake up, in bed, and Georgette will be beside you, and she’ll be looking at you, and she’ll say, ‘You old Jew, you.’” Calder said that out of love for me and protection of me. It was his visualization of what an antisemitic remark would be.
He was a very dear friend. He died about five years ago. He was very close to Mailer, Styron, Vance Bourjaily, that crowd. Who were trying to form what Calder told me was their own little literary clique. They were trying to become a recognizable clique, with as he put it, in their own way, control over some of the review media. Which he said to me, after all, is how the book business works. They never did.
He had an incredible ear. He was a clumsy craftsman. He was learning to be a great craftsman; he became one as a screenwriter. But he was a clumsy craftsman in many of his novels. He was flawless in dialogue. And he had the capacity to do something that I wanted to do, and for a long time was unable to do. And he could do it every time he sat down at the typewriter. And I can express it no other way than to say that he could put his fingers on his chest and pull it apart. And let whatever was inside come out and hit the typewriter. He could do that. And I couldn’t. And he kept telling me that what I should do was not try to create a Piece of Writing, but to sit down and just write. Write at random, and go on the basis that you’re enough of a craftsman that it will take over at some point. It’ll do its own work. That’s how I began writing “Bernie the Faust.”
JL: He was a novelist, and you were writing in the genre that Northrop Frye calls “anatomy.” Menippean satire.
PK: I wanted to be a novelist, in fact I would have been one if I hadn’t begun writing science fiction, I think.
Calder felt he was not appreciated, he was not liked. And he began trying to write movies because basically, he needed money to support a wife and children. But he did feel that he was much more respected as a screenwriter than he was as a novelist. God knows the movies he did were very, very substantial. Even The Vikings, which is a commercial job, is a pretty successful piece of work as a movie. The movie of End As a Man, The Strange One, for which he wrote the screenplay — he was lucky there, he had excellent actors, Ben Gazzara, Pat Hinkel, but the movie somehow or other was not appreciated nearly as much as I think it should have been.
JL: It’s been rehabilitated recently, thanks to End As a Man’s being one of the rare novels of that era that does not give moral retribution to its homosexual characters.
PK: I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. It stands alone, or almost alone, in that respect.
You should see Paths of Glory. That was his film. At one point, Kubrick said to him, “I want equal writing credit.” Calder said, “Why?” Kubrick said, “Because I’m the director and I can get it.” To Calder, who very much wanted to have that film produced — he didn’t want to be known, as he was then, as the guy who wrote The Vikings. So Kubrick got the screen credit, and Kubrick had contributed next to nothing, except as a director.
JL: Late in his life, Willingham characterized Kubrick as having a “psychopathic aesthetic.” He said, “He doesn’t like people much; they interest him mainly when they do unspeakably hideous things or when their idiocy is so malignant as to be horrifyingly amusing."
PK: Well, he hated the guy. My nephew, David Klass, is now a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplays for Desperate Measures and Kiss the Girls. And he tells me what he goes through in terms of sharing screen credit. A writer is still the lowest thing in Hollywood. David is a successful screenwriter and he said there’s no question about it, the way they constantly let you know that a writer is a low thing. You write a screenplay and the director gives it to a buddy of his, and somebody else gets credit for it.
Calder was a tall redheaded guy, very thin, who came from Rome, Georgia. He never lost his Southern accent, even though he lived most of his life — all of his adult life — in New York. When he met a woman who was very good-looking, and he wanted to express it, he would say, “Phil, she’s the prettiest girl in all of North Georgia.” And that was his ultimate compliment. He and I belonged to a wolfpack who wandered the streets together. He was very worried about me. He felt that some woman would snaffle me in marriage, and I wouldn’t know how to handle myself.
I once asked Calder, “Calder, how is it that you come from the South and don’t have any anti-Negro prejudice?” He said, “Phil, my family was so snobbish, that Negroes and poor whites were the same to them. They looked down on everybody equally.” He came from a very aristocratic family. I once told him of how in the mid-thirties my family was starving, and I was hired out as a chambermaid so that we could eat. He said, “Yes, the Depression hit our family very hard too. We had to give up our country club membership. We had to give up our house and servants; we ended up living in the hotel my father owned and using the hotel staff as our servants.” I said, “Gee, you really suffered.” He said, “Phil, you don’t understand. This was a terrible thing to happen to me as a teenager. The country club was where you had a social life, where you met girls. It was a horrible blow to suffer.” I finally said to him, “Yes — Aristotle said that a tragedy must involve a fall from a throne, but I always thought that a fall from a footstool could be as terrifying.” He said, “That’s right. We fell from a footstool, but we fell very hard.”
He and I were very close friends for years. Towards the end, we became unfriendly. He wrote a book called Eternal Fire in the early Sixties. He sent me a copy, and he said, “I have finally done what you thought I was capable of doing.” And I wrote back and told him that I didn’t think it was a good book. I thought it had some great sequences in it, but I didn’t think it was a good book. And he called me up from New Hampshire and wanted to know why I didn’t think it was a good book. I had the same trouble with Heinlein and Time Enough for Love. So I told Calder that what I didn’t like about it was that it was a moral fable. Bad guys come to bad ends; good guys come to good ends. I said, “It’s not like you: it’s not like the understanding you showed in your other books.”
JL: That’s the sort of thing he parodied in Gates of Hell.
PK: Yes. Exactly. And Calder said, “Phil, I hate to have to say this, but it must be said. The problem with you in understanding my book is you are Jewish.” And I said, “Why and how does this relate.” This was over a long-distance telephone in the days when long-distance rates were higher than they are now. And he said, “Look,” he said, “The Jews have the same Bible as the Christians for the most part. But the trouble with the Jewish view of it is, the Law is what’s important.” He said, “To a Christian, love is most important.” He said, “If you are a Christian, you must believe that swine end as swine.” And I said, “For God’s sake, Tolstoy did not believe that!” And he said, “No.” He said, “Phil, I’m a believing Christian,” so I didn’t argue with him. And he said, “Phil, if you ever get to a point where you rise above your Jewish heritage to see there must be something more than the Law, you will appreciate that book.” So I said to him, “Calder, I don’t think there’s very much more we can talk about,” and he said, “I don’t think there is,” and we hung up on each other. That was the last time I had a little conversation with him.
I had many sex experiences in the Village, eventually meeting the woman who became my wife, Fruma. We met and married in the Village: she was also a Villager. And we went off and lived in Brooklyn, at Seagate, near Coney Island, and then moved back to the Village. I began having a lot of trouble writing. What I wanted to write was not easy to write. It was not paid well. At this time, Penn State asked me to come out there and teach a single course. So I agreed, and I went out there, and they gave me the title of Assistant Professor, to which my brother, who’s an anthropologist, said, “The man doesn’t have a Ph.D., doesn’t have an M.A., doesn’t even have a B.A.: he does have a high school graduation certificate and an honorable discharge from the Army.” I didn’t feel this was permanent: we kept our apartment in the Village. But I liked teaching enormously. It was much more fulfilling than writing when it went well. And the students liked me; the faculty liked me; I was elected to various positions in the University, such as the Academic Senate. I was on the committee in charge of rank and tenure when I didn’t have tenure myself. Eventually, to my astonishment, they gave me tenure. They gave me promotions to Full Professor. And I was reasonably happy. I began writing criticism: some scholarly stuff, ultimately a fair amount of scholarly stuff, and I wrote some stories but not much. And in 1988 or 89, I retired.
My wife was offered a job here in Pittsburgh as an editor for a technical firm, a computer firm, so we moved here. She worked there for about six years and then was dropped because of internal politics. So here I am. And I’m still writing: I’m working on a novel under my own name; I’m working on a novel under the name William Tenn. St. Martin’s Press has contracted for it.
The Army is what saved me: when I was in the Army I knew I could only be a writer. It could only be literature. But my father never came around. He wanted me to do something useful. He said, “You shall not make an axe out of the Torah.” You understand that phrase? The point is that it is not good to make a living out of the Torah. You study the Torah, you read the Torah, you act on the Torah, you advise on the Torah. But you don’t make a living because the Torah is holy. You do not make a living out of that which is holy. And my father felt that writing was like the Torah. For me. Thou shalt not make an axe of the Torah: you won’t use it to chop wood. Or to chop kindling. And my father always said to me, “So you want to be a writer. All right. But what will you do?” Almost all the great rebbonim had trades. Benedict Spinoza, who was training to be a rabbi before he went nuts and became all kinds of other things, was a lens-grinder. Great thinkers are supposed to have a trade. It’s only in certain parts of Eastern Europe that it was enough to be a Talmudic scholar. You ought to be able to make a living out of something else: you ought to contribute something. My father gave me a whole list of great rabbis who had trades. They made things; they did things. And God knows I’ve done almost everything. I’ve been a purser at sea, I’ve been a sheet-metal mechanic, I’ve been a salesman, I owned my own business, I was a department store demonstrator, I was an editor, and then at the end I was a professor. An educator.
JL: I’d like to ask you about some individual works of yours and about the circumstances of their creation and publication. Your first published story, “Alexander the Bait,” was accepted by John Campbell in 1946. Would you care to talk about your relationship with him?
PK: I would, but I think it’s a waste of time, because I’ve written about it. I’ll give you the articles I’ve written about him [in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 42: 5, May 1972 and Pennsylvania English 10:2, Spring 1984].
"Alexander the Bait” is a dog of a story as far as I’m concerned. I’m deeply ashamed of it, and then again it was my first published story. That means a lot. But it is social science fiction. In its own way. Crude as it is, rough as it is. It was an attempt to write such a story long before Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon" — as a matter of fact Heinlein told me that he held back on publishing “The Man Who Sold the Moon” because of my story: he felt that his story was too close to mine. I had been troubled for a long time, every time I tried to write science fiction, by the fact that he got a story published with the same basic idea. The reason I wrote the story is that I was very annoyed by stories about the first space explorers building a spaceship in their garage. And I wanted to show that space travel would be achieved, probably, on some sort of institutional basis. And for reasons of greed. As the discovery of the New World was a matter of greed. And as Columbus’s voyage was a governmental enterprise, so this would have to be some sort of governmental enterprise. It therefore was, in that sense, social science fiction. Crudely written, very roughly done, with an eye to the Writers’ Digest kind of story. But it did get published. And it had a little bit of humor in it.
And then I went to sea as a purser on a cargo ship. Because a purser is a staff officer, head of administrative matters on board a ship. And the reason I went to sea was because I was still living at home at the time, and I had to write on the train going to and from my job. So I found out that on a cargo ship, when the ship is at sea, the radio operator is very busy, and he has nothing to do when the ship is in port, so he takes off. The purser, on the other hand, is very busy when the ship is in port, but has little to do while the ship is at sea. So I figured I would make enough money to support my family and have time to write. And while at sea, I wrote “Child’s Play,” which was my second published story, and of which I was for a long time reasonably proud. I’m not ashamed of it now, but it’s a story by a juvenile: I’m not as proud of it as I was at one time. But it was a tremendous success.
JL: It’s been dramatized for radio at least twice...
PK: Oh yes, for radio, for television — it was anthologized about fifty times, at one point more than almost any other story, all over the world. Clifton Fadiman wrote a nice mention of it for The New Yorker.
JL: I see Kuttner’s influence...
PK: At a given point, I became aware that I was writing what I thought was a Lewis Padgett story. This story is, in a sense, a “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.” I began feeling that I was writing a story that Padgett would have written, and since I loved Padgett, I now had the pleasure of finding out what was going to happen next! It was definitely a Kuttner story. I didn’t know then of Henry Kuttner: I knew Lewis Padgett. I didn’t know that Lewis Padgett was Kuttner or C.L. Moore or anything of those people.2
That sold very well. All kinds of New York science fiction magazine editors wanted stories by me. Ted Sturgeon became my agent. I had met him before the war, in a cafeteria in 1939 on 57th Street. He was the first professional writer I met. He had just been beached: he was a sailor at the time. He had sold two stories to Campbell: one to Unknown, “A God in a Garden,” and one to Astounding, “Ether Breather.” I got to know him, and he was the only professional writer I knew for a long time. I looked him up after I came out of the Army and he came back from the tropics. I’d read his work in the meantime. And when I wrote “Child’s Play,” he told me that he was then functioning as an agent for Damon Knight, Jim Blish, Judy Merril, Chandler Davis, and a whole bunch of people. He was a very good agent. So he became my agent and helped me get published in all sorts of magazines: Campbell’s Astounding, of course, as well as those of lesser stature.
In 1948 I wrote “Brooklyn Project.” It was an attack on HUAC.
JL: In ’48? That would have been unusually early.
PK: Yeh. And also unusually dangerous.
Originally the story was written for Ted Sturgeon. Sturgeon and Groff Conklin had been approached by people who had offered to back them in a new science fiction magazine. This was in ’47. At a time when the top of the field paid about two cents a word, Sturgeon and Groff Conklin, who had just published an anthology, were going to be paying five cents a word. Sturgeon came to me and told me that he was approaching a specific group of writers and asking them to write stuff they really considered distinguished, significant, important to them, and he wanted a story from me on something that was important to me. So I got very excited, and I wrote “Brooklyn Project.” And he liked it very much.
JL: It’s a powerful story.
PK: Yeh. And then the magazine fell apart. The backers withdrew: they didn’t have the money for it. So Sturgeon said he would have no trouble selling it elsewhere. And it was rejected by almost every editor, down the line. With very nasty comments to the effect that they wouldn’t publish anything as stinkingly dangerous as that under any circumstances. It was a very bad time to publish something like this. It was finally bought by Malcolm Reiss at Planet Stories, where Paul L. Payne was the Editor-in-Chief, with the words, “This is a dangerous story for me to buy and publish. It doesn’t fit the magazine in any way.” Because Planet Stories dealt in stories that happened off Earth. “But I figure this one is for God. Every editor’s entitled to at least one story for God.” He bought it and published it. And it did not attract the attention of the FBI.
But a number of writers have told me that they read that story in Planet — Sheckley was one of them, I think — and were very much influenced by it. For the first time they saw science fiction as a vehicle for satire. And I felt upset at that, because Huxley and Zamyatin had both used science fiction as a vehicle for satire, and also Bulgakov. And I felt it was an ideal vehicle for satire, and from time to time, I tried to write other stories like that. And after a while, everybody was willing to buy them. The Fear was over.
JL: Sturgeon didn’t write his Red Scare story till ’53.
PK: “Mr. Costello, Hero.” That’s right. By that time, it was no longer dangerous. I claim to have been writing politically satiric science fiction in a magazine before anybody else, but the one exception could have been Kornbluth. I admired him tremendously, and he liked me. But at the time I wrote “Brooklyn Project,” certainly, nobody was doing that. And that was considered a really dangerous story.
JL: “Brooklyn Project” is in a section of the new book called “Immodest Proposals.” Is that an allusion to a satirist who influenced you — were you a Swift enthusiast?
PK: Yeh. Voltaire and Swift.
JL: Right, you published a book called Of All Possible Worlds.
PK: Mm-hm. Voltaire and Swift. I could add Juvenal, whom I enjoy a lot. I could add Orwell, because Orwell represents someone I found very difficult to read until I stopped being a Marxist, and then I reveled in him — I’ve got all his works, everything he ever wrote. But the truth of the matter is, they influenced me after I had reached manhood, whereas Voltaire and Swift influenced me all through my adolescence. And I can’t say Swift more than Voltaire or Voltaire more than Swift: for a long time I looked at them as the same writer. Swiftaire. They lived and wrote within a few decades of each other. At the time, I could have seen Swift writing Candide with no question.
JL: I’m not sure that Dean Swift would have been delighted by that.
PK: I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t. And I don’t think that Voltaire would have enjoyed having as an apprentice in time a young Jewish writer. I forgave him his antisemitism as I forgave Kipling his imperialism: I reveled in Kipling, loved Kipling. When I was a Marxist, I carried water on both shoulders: I considered it an advantage to be schizophrenic.
JL: In 1947, you published your first work of fantasy, “Mistress Sary."
PK: In Weird Tales. I had dealt with Farnsworth Wright up till then. Dorothy McIlwraith had taken it over: Farnsworth Wright was suffering from Parkinson’s.
I don’t consider “Mistress Sary” a good story. It’s a Gothic horror. And I don’t like most fantasy. I used to read fantasy; I read a lot of fantasy. But increasingly as I got older I disliked fantasy. And the reason why I disliked fantasy doesn’t have to do with fantasy so much itself as the emergence of Tolkien. And a lot of people who imitated Tolkien. I thought it was very reactionary. That garbage has practically destroyed science fiction because it takes the place of science fiction on the shelves of bookstores, and people who think they’re science fiction fans are actually Tolkien readers. It is highly reactionary work in that it is written for an audience that no longer exists: The Lords and Ladies up in their Towers and Bowers. A lot of people who read science fiction and even write science fiction — Randall Garrett, Poul Anderson, a lot of others like him — belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism. And what the hell — that’s fun. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as Lords and Ladies.
But writing is a serious business. And writing material meant for Lords and Ladies. The elvish stuff. The quest novel, specifically for a Holy Grail. I don’t like it. It doesn’t belong to our time. I’m a Jewish boy with some talent, who grew up in Brooklyn, and was very much..., well, that comes to my definition of science fiction. I have one. I’ve read a dozen definitions, and this is going to be one more. They’re all right; they’re all wrong. Like the blind men and the elephant, they all just have a piece of it. I define science fiction not as they do. I define it entirely in historical terms. As far as I’m concerned, science fiction is that kind of literature which came into existence, and could only have come into existence, with the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth, and the industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a literature based on the knowledge-disciplines that developed in those times. And it is a literature dramatizing the knowledge-disciplines that come from that time. And therefore Lucian is not proto-science fiction: it’s fantasy for his time. When you get to Mary Shelley, when you get to Voltaire, when you get to Swift, you do have proto-science fiction. Because the knowledge-disciplines were developing; the scientific revolution had occurred and you need that in order to have science fiction in modern terms.
Thus Swift could deal with aliens on three different levels: the tiny aliens, the enormous aliens, and finally his cleverest, the horse-aliens. When I taught my class in science fiction, I used to read aloud the scene where Gulliver lands in the island of the Houyhnhnms and how he decides when he first sees them that horses must be intelligent creatures. Not able to hear their voices or understand their language, but from their actions, he deduces they must be, and Swift dealt with this problem of how to discern a nonhuman intelligence. He only had done that because they were dealing with these problems, whether they knew it or not — already, they were dealing with intelligences, with the possibility of other worlds, and aliens. Voltaire in “Micromégas” deals with aliens: again, he makes them of enormous size. But he gives them many more senses than human beings have: they are beginning to be genuine aliens.
JL: What does the title “Here Comes Civilization” come from?
PK: From me. At a given point, I recognized that there was a kind of story I found terribly attractive: a story about a technologically superior civilization hitting us, as a planet, as a species, the way European man, European humanity, hit technologically inferior civilizations and doing the same things to them. What it would be like. As a way of dramatizing what has been done, but also in a sense possibly preparing us for what might be done. I liked to write those kinds of stories. This was after I wrote, I think, “Betelgeuse Bridge” and two other pieces like that, and all of a sudden, I realized that there was a rubric, and the rubric was “Here Comes Civilization”. Here comes civilization — look out!
The novel I’m doing for St. Martin’s Press, something called Salvation, belongs to that. Salvation deals with an alien missionary who comes to Earth to convert us all to the One True Faith. Which nobody on Earth can understand at all. It’s utterly alien to us. But the only way we can get at his very superior technology is by joining his religion. And he doesn’t know a damn thing about his very superior technology. But he has it, and we can get close to it that way. So the people achieve salvation, can hold onto salvation, by joining a religion that they don’t understand, which in every sense is inimical to us in many ways.
JL: The earliest story in the “Here Comes Civilization” section of the forthcoming book is “The House Dutiful.” That also has Lewis Padgett resonances.
PK: When I wrote for Astounding, very frequently that was on my mind. There were two people on my mind when I wrote for Astounding. Mostly there was Padgett (Kuttner). And secondarily, always Heinlein.
But the story that is very much “Here Comes Civilization” is of course “Firewater,” a short novel that is about fifty per cent Heinlein and fifty per cent Padgett.
JL: Didn’t Campbell have a rule against aliens being superior to human beings?
PK: He did. But that was not significant in his purchase of “The House Dutiful.” He didn’t seem to feel that. He did feel it very strongly in the case of “Firewater.” We went through a very long period of negotiation — he kept asking me to rewrite the story. And I couldn’t understand what he wanted. And Sturgeon, who was no longer my agent, became my ambassador, and dealt with him. And Sturgeon came back and told me that the superiority of the aliens was something Campbell would not swallow. And I had to show that in some way, they had their problems too. Which I did. And Sturgeon told me that when I had it published in my own book, I’d have it published my way. But I lost the original.
I never got along with Campbell. He was my intellectual father. The idea of having lunch with him after I sold my first story was something that almost overpowered me. But when I met the man I disliked him intensely.3
JL: In ’48, Sam Merwin published “Consulate.”
PK: Yes, he did. I don’t think much of “Consulate.” I must tell you that one of the things I don’t like about Immodest Proposals is that it includes an awful lot of stories that I would willingly burn. My wife talked me out of a lot of it. She likes a lot of the things I’ve done. She’s a fan. She thinks “Consulate”’s not that bad a story. I think it is that bad a story. I’m deeply ashamed of it. I was trying to do something I couldn’t quite handle: I was trying to deal with a superior alien, and trying on the other hand to write a story in very idiomatic prose. And in both cases I think I just couldn’t handle it. Later on, the story which I successfully wrote, as far as I’m concerned, in really decent idiomatic prose, is “Bernie the Faust.” But when I wrote “Consulate,” I was trying to write prose that I was unfamiliar with: I was using an idiom I did not know. So that had a lot to do with it.
JL: But it’s one of the stories that exemplifies the William Tenn theme, that the planets and the future won’t be conquered by the Best and the Brightest but by the schlemiels and mediocrities.
PK: I believe in the internal strength of the schlemiel.
JL: “Bernie the Faust” demonstrates that.
PK: Well, “Bernie the Faust” is something else. There was a drugstore in New York — I think it was a Walgreen’s — it was on the comer opposite a hotel. It was an enormous, enormous drugstore. And you looked into it, and there were miles of department store items everywhere, and counters you passed through, and all the way in the back of the store, running along one complete wall, were phone booths. And in front of each phone booth...
JL: Was a macher?
PK: Was a macher. Right. An operator: a macher. Sometimes two. And I went into one of the booths to make a phone call one day, and the man standing outside tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Would you mind making the call from another booth? I’m waiting for an important call.”
It was his office.
And I was fascinated by that. What happened down the line, I found out, was that almost everyone was expecting an important call. Some people were not, so you used their phone booth. And I talked to them. And they were vaguely Broadway types. But they were all businessmen. Some of them were bookies. Some of them were touts. But almost all of them had a business, a real business, of some sort, and they were involved in deals. So that was the origin of Bernie.
The other thing, of course, was the fact that that’s a story I wrote in a very specific way. I call that mining for a story. Lester Del Rey gave me the original idea: a reporter would try to sell people a twenty-dollar bill during the depression for a one-dollar bill, and people were afraid of being cheated so they wouldn’t take him up on it. And he felt it was a good idea there, and he tried to write it and couldn’t. And he offered it to me, and I said I thought I could. He offered it to me because he’d stolen an idea of mine, actually, and been very successful with it.
So I tried to write a story using that idea, not knowing what I wanted to write. I call that mining for a story. And I threw in to the story everything I could that seemed interesting along the way. And gradually the story evolved and it was 33,000 words when I got through, and I called the story “The Giveaway Show.” And when I was through with 33,000 words, I knew what the story was about for the first time. I rewrote it, and it was 25,000 words. It was called “Bemie the Faust.” And then I rewrote it again and rewrote it again. That’s also a “Here Comes Civilization” story. Very much so.
JL: In 1950 you made your first sales to Howard Browne. A couple of your stories appeared in...
PK: Fantastic Adventures. I’m not fond of either one of them. But the following year I sold him “Everyone Loves Irving Bommer.” Which is a fantasy, but one that I’m not ashamed of. And as a fantasy, it strikes me as being just and valid: it’s not a reactionary story. I like “Irving Bommer.” It came at the end of a long slump: I hadn’t written for a long time, and I finally managed to get writing again.
JL: You ultimately published a lot of stories in ’51, no doubt in part because there was a new science fiction magazine with a strong interest in satire.
PK: Galaxy. Yeh. With Galaxy I began to do the kind of writing I like. Although I had written a couple of stories, such as “Null-P” for Worlds Beyond, which is a story I’m very fond of. It was written about the Eisenhower years. And it predicts the kind of administration that you don’t like. It predicts the administration for which you have contempt. As somebody who voted for Bush (because I wanted to see somebody utterly other than Clinton in office), I can’t say that it predicts the current administration, but my brother feels that way about it.
“Null-P” was originally written to make fun of Army officialdom, of Army officers, and when I came out of the Army, I rewrote it about Truman. I thought Truman was stupid beyond belief. And then when I began to admire Truman, I wrote it about Eisenhower. And I really meant it.
JL: It’s the apotheosis of the Triumph of Mediocrity theme that runs through the William Tenn canon.
PK: Although it’s from the early Fifties, it’s of a piece with the reaction against the Eisenhower years that appeared in Lenny Bruce, the Beats, and the Black Humorists. That entire period.
JL: In ’51 you published a largish novella that was a redaction of Greek mythology in science-fictional terms, A Lamp for Medusa.
PK: All right. If I were to start a bonfire of my work, that’d be the first thing I’d throw on the flames. My then-agent Fred Pohl got me a commission to write a story for Fantastic Adventures. They wanted a story about their cover. He showed me their cover. And they were willing to pay $350 for a story about their cover. And I started writing “A Crown of Medusa,” as it was originally called, and I didn’t know what I wanted to write, and I was starving. As a matter of fact, it was the only time in my life I had taken Benzedrine to stay awake so I could finish it, and it wandered and it wandered up hill and down dale, and eventually became a short novel. And I’m terribly ashamed of it, and I wanted to forget about it, but people kept republishing it. And sending me money. And telling me that if I didn’t accept the money they’d republish it anyway. And they put it in book form and everything like that.
My wife thinks of that story too that I’m far too finicky. She says it’s not a great story but it’s a fun story to read.
JL: It has some Schadenfreude in it that brings a smile to one’s face.
PK: (Impatiently) All right.
JL: When you realize what’s going to happen to the protagonist at the end...
PK: Well, I frequently have nasty things happen to my protagonists. Largely because the tendency in pulp fiction was always to have the protagonist succeed. And I found that unbelievable and unhappy. I like to show how easy it is to fail. And of course that was part of my Jewish heritage: in the end, everything fails.
JL: Pessimism is a beautiful thing. It also wonderfully refutes Robert Bloch’s criticism of science fiction in his 1957 lecture, “Imagination and Modern Social Criticism.” Bloch denounces sf for, among other things, being too concerned with superheroes, for being full of stories in which “the Common Man is seldom the hero; if so, he doesn’t remain common for very long but becomes a Key Figure...”. Like Phil Dick, you were writing different kinds of stories in the Fifties.
PK: Yes. I’ve almost never written a story of that sort. Except for maybe “Firewater,” where I have a businessman figure out how to become a bigger businessman. It’s hard to write popular fiction about the Common Man. Because the Common Man wants to read about Uncommon Men. If you have Broadside Ballads, they are about people who do unusual and colorful things. You do not want to have a Broadside Ballad about a peasant plowing his field. Or about a necktie salesman. You have a Broadside Ballad about something unusual and interesting. That’s part of the problem. But the unusual and interesting ought to say something about the world. The unusual and interesting person must still be a person. Must still be a recognizable human being.
Now the Campbellian solution is: You Find a Way Out. Campbell loved to have his writers set up problems....
JL: Yes, that’s how Asimov broke into the field in 1938 with “Marooned off Vesta.”
JL: You wrote that kind of story in your early “Confusion Cargo.”
PK: Another dog. Fortunately, I have reached an age — and if I may say so, an achievement — where I feel quite free to tell the reader how bad it is. What I keep in mind always is the introduction that Huxley wrote to Brave New World twenty or thirty years after its original publication. He said that his younger self was entitled to the bad writing, and that there were things that his younger self could do that he could no longer do and was not likely to do, so leave it alone. And that’s the best I can do.
JL: It’s like forgiving Kipling.
PK: That’s right. But it’s harder to forgive yourself. It’s hard to forgive yourself crappy craftsmanship. And there’s an awful lot of crappy craftsmanship in that earlier work of mine.
I don’t have self-esteem at all. I’m proud of what I did that’s good, and of what I did that’s stinking I’m desperately unproud.
JL: “The Liberation of Earth” is another fine “Here Comes Civilization” story. Bob Lowndes bought it.
PK: Bob Lowndes bought it only because he said he could use my name in a magazine. But the point is, that was written about the Korean War. Later on, it was read aloud during the Vietnam War at anti-Vietnam War rallies.
And it is my basic conviction that, whoever was right and whoever was wrong in the Korean or Vietnam War, it was hell to be a Korean or a Vietnamese. That’s all I was trying to do. Show what it was like being on the underside of this Great Political Adventure.
JL: It’s a choice to connect with the more Common Man, isn’t it?
PK: Yes, it is, but in terms of a rather uncommon event. And there’s another thing too. Today if I had it, I would rewrite “The Liberation of Earth” a little bit. But it’s a story that I think Swift would have appreciated. And I think Voltaire would have appreciated it. I’m proud of it for that reason: I think they would have enjoyed it. Also Twain for that matter.
JL: 1953’s “The Tenants” would have marked your first appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. You’ve said that you were a big admirer of Anthony Boucher.
PK: Yes I was. He was a gentleman. And a literary man. Both Campbell and Horace Gold saw their writers as so many pencils that would do their work for them. As automatic typewriters that would do their work for them. They were the writers. They got writers to do these things. I had many lunches with Campbell and told him ideas I had that I wanted to write. He would always take the idea and twist it around, so that it would become a John Campbell story. Gold would do this much more. Gold would actually rewrite a story you gave him.
Boucher never did that.
JL: But somehow Boucher had an instructive impact on his writers.
PK: He had a tremendous impact. Largely by example. Largely by spiritual stature. Or aesthetic stature. By giving you the feeling that he wanted literature.
Campbell and Gold were both essentially what they’d started as. They’d started as pulp writers. They remained pulp writers. Although Gold aspired to be more than a pulp writer: he wanted to be a slick editor of a woman’s magazine. It was said of him that what he wanted most of all was to edit Ladies’ Home Galaxy. But they remained what they had been. Boucher was a literary editor. He wanted literature. And gave you that feeling very strongly. He wanted what you did for Campbell and Gold, but he wanted it very well done. It was a challenge to work for him. Even when he’d retired and I wrote a story for the magazine, when I was Consulting Editor myself, “Eastward Ho!” It was still the most literary and literate version of an idea.
You always felt with Campbell and Gold you could get away with almost anything if you could just give them the kind of thing that tickled their idiosyncrasies. Gold once told me in so many words, “It’s a hell of a good idea: if you give me the idea you just mentioned I don’t care how well you write it.”
I’m saying all this about Boucher and about literature when, I want to point out to you, I don’t feel science fiction is literature. I refer to it as a genre, but I don’t think it’s that. It is not quite literature. I don’t think it is less than, or more than, literature. I think it is something other.
PK: Yes. I think it is something that again developed in response to the scientific and industrial revolutions. It is a way of writing, and a way of thinking, of looking at the world, that is peculiar to the modern disciplines.
Fantasy that comes out of the modern disciplines is acceptable to me. A story like “The Tenants” is something I don’t believe could have been written in 1500. But a story like “Mistress Sary” could conceivably have been written in 1500. It’s that kind of magic. It might not have been seen as a fantasy. But “The Tenants” would have been seen as a fantasy at any time. It relates to the modem construction of buildings, and I got its point of departure from that. And in a sense, it mocks superstition.
JL: I love the sinister duo of Tohu v’Vohu, named after the Hebrew words in Genesis that mean “without form and void."
PK: I’m very proud of those two figures. The first time I studied the Hebrew Bible, I knew that I wanted to use Tohu and Bohu in some context or other.
JL: ’54 saw “Down Among the Dead Men.” People love that one.
PK: Yeh. I’m very fond of it myself. I’m proud of that story. Horace Gold challenged me to write such a story. He said, “You’ve never written a space opera. Can you give me a real bangety-bang space opera? Gotta be bangety-bang.” So I wrote “Down Among the Dead Men,” and he bought it with tears in his eyes, and he said, “It’s a tour-de-force: everything happens offstage. It is a space opera, but all the space is offstage — the opera’s onstage.” I set myself to do that. I wanted to write a space opera that would be as real as I could make it. If I did it now, I don’t think I would make the protagonist a commander. I would have made him an ordinary soldier. But I don’t know if I could do it — it is a space-opera convention to involve the commander.
JL: People love it for its expression of sympathy among victims of discrimination. There’s a thematic connection to your story “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!” Toward the end of that story, when they’re discussing what constitutes a Jew, one of the aspects of Jewishness that they identify themselves as sharing with the puffy gray creatures is the oppressed-minority status...
PK: Campbell said of me, “Phil would be a very good science fiction writer were it not for one thing: he’s got a mouse’s-eye view of the universe.” And Sturgeon said to him, “No, it’s a Jew’s-eye view of the universe.” And Campbell said, “Well, it comes to the same thing.”
You know, Kuttner was Jewish. In the Baldy stories, he wrote about pogroms. It’s the only way he permitted himself to be Jewish.
JL: In what other writers do you see Yiddishkeit [Jewish interests, values, culture, tone]?
PK: Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed, as far as I’m concerned, is a number of things; but one of them is that it’s a novel about kibbutzim.
Sheckley has a little bit of it. But Sheckley essentially has an assimilated background, so it very rarely breaks through.
Cyril Kornbluth had a lot of it. I’m very bitter about Kingsley Amis, in his book New Maps of Hell, where he says that he feels that in the collaboration of Pohl and Kornbluth, Pohl was the one who gave the most. He says he doesn’t think that Kornbluth was that good a writer. And I know that Pohl could never have written The Space Merchants without Kornbluth. He went down on his knees to Cyril: he’d had the idea, he started it, but he couldn’t write it. And somehow, out of that collaboration, Pohl became a much better writer. It was a collaboration where he grew up. And I think Cyril gave it to him. Cyril was the talent.
JL: What was Outsiders: Children of Wonder?
PK: An anthology of fantasy and science fiction about children. I edited it in 1953: it was my first book. That was by Simon & Shuster. It contained Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman,” Lewis Padgett’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves,” Ted Sturgeon’s “Baby is Three,” my own “Errand Boy,” Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother”.... The introduction that I wrote for it was reprinted in the New York Times Book Review, which was in those days a big achievement.
JL: And in the Sixties you co-edited a book with Donald Westlake?
PK: An anthology of mystery stories written by nonmystery writers. From Tolstoy on out.
JL: Your own “Time in Advance” is almost a crime story.
PK: It is. I don’t know how I came to write that.
I know the circumstances under which I wrote it. I needed the money. I needed to write a story for Gold, ’cause I needed to pay the rent. And I set myself to wonder what conceivably could be another approach to crime than any we had, and I came up with that.
But I wrote it for another reason. I wrote it because I hated somebody. Somebody I wanted to kill. Somebody I hated very much. And I wrote it to get that out of my system. By the time I finished writing it, I was giggling.
JL: That’s great. There are writers who put the names of their old enemies on characters who suffer ugly fates. But in this story, you actually address the idea of vindictiveness and come up with something very moving.
PK: Universal Pictures bought it. They never produced it.
JL: Another “Here Comes Civilization” piece is “Venus and the Seven Sexes.” Your brother Morton helped you with the science in that one?
PK: Yes. He did the chromosome patterns. Which I couldn’t manage. He worked them out for me. I would not have called that a “Here Comes Civilization” story at the time that I wrote it. Of course, you’re right — it is one, except that the Plookhh are in the capacity of Earthmen. You might call them the Jews of Venus.
JL: Only someone who’d studied Serbo-Croatian could come up with such vowel-deprived genders as the srobb, mlenbb, tkann, and nzredd.
PK: Yes. But it was also an attempt on my part, a very careful attempt to write satire that failed. I think in Shlestertrap, the Earthman, I overdid. Very badly.
JL: You worry that it was a foile schtik.
PK: Exactly. Exactly. I would like to have rewritten that story. Twice when it was anthologized I offered to rewrite it, and both times I was told that I would spoil it. They didn’t want me to do it. So at this point it’s kind of set in bronze. I changed it a little bit — just took out some of the more ridiculous or schtiky passages for Immodest Proposals.
JL: Biology was not one of the chief sciences that science fiction would have been addressing in 1949.
PK: No it was not. From “Child’s Play” right through “Venus and the Seven Sexes,” I was much more interested in biology than in astronomy or physics or anything like that. My physics background was very weak. I did not enjoy physics in school. I did enjoy biology. And I’m fascinated by the fact that as a result of the computer revolution and of nanotechnology, we may be moving into an era where much of this biology will become real. In a way that I hadn’t suspected.
PK: The stories I consider among my best stories have been very little anthologized. Of the stories I like, “Down Among the Dead Men” has been anthologized many times. “Wednesday’s Child” has never been anthologized. “The Custodian” is another story that I’m very fond of. It was anthologized only once, and that was in something called Master’s Choice, where writers were asked to select the story they liked the best, of all they had written.
JL: You wrote that it was the popularity of the prequel, “Child’s Play,” that led you to write “Wednesday’s Child.”
PK: Yes. Not that so much that as that I wanted to see what I could do with that character — it was a fascinating little character, the little girl from “Child’s Play.”
JL: “The Custodian” also confronts your father’s idea about what constitutes “doing something useful.”
PK: Yes. It was also something else. It was one of a few stories I tried to write about art. Art and the future, art and the past, what have you, what art meant. I was very much involved in a group in high school of young artists, and I’ve always been very much more interested in art than in music. And “The Custodian” is about art more than anything else. I wrote, and it’s true, that I almost starved to death in writing that story: it took me a hell of a long time to write. I drowned in exhibitions, museums, art books, everything, and when I was finished I felt I had a very unsatisfactory story because I had not gone into it as much as I wanted to.
JL: You created a stylistically dense story: it can’t be rushed through.
PK: Right. But I wanted to do much more. And it’s just as well I didn’t because I think I would have written an unsuccessful and wandering story if I had. My friend Jay Irving once said that it takes two people to complete a masterpiece: one man to do it, and another man to shoot him before he spoils it. If I had done with “The Custodian” what I wanted to do but couldn’t because I needed the money — I needed to sell the goddamn thing to get some money: I had spent two years on it — I think I would have spoiled it completely. I think it’s a good story now.
There’s a lot about art of the future in “Winthrop Was Stubborn,” which is another one of my favorite stories. I’m fond of that story. Even though there’s some cheap stuff in one of the characters — I would like to rewrite that now. The Jewish lady, Mrs. Brucks. The form that art would take in the future has, it strikes me, never been dealt with adequately in science fiction.
JL: In “Winthrop Was Stubborn,” a lot of it takes the form of interactive art, performance art.
PK: I would like to write — I think I will write, if I can, if I have the time, at least one story about art in the future.
JL: A lot of science fiction doesn’t go beyond the pastoral-utopian hand-stamped leather belts Arts and Crafts kind of creativity.
I would name six stories as the stories I’m fond of. Six stories as the stories that I think stand up. That I would settle for. I could burn all the rest. “Winthrop Was Stubborn,” “Wednesday’s Child,” “The Custodian,” “Down Among the Dead Men,” “The Liberation of Earth,” and “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!” Maybe I would add to that a seventh, “Null-P.” Come to think of it, I would add to that an eighth — I’m getting greedy — “Eastward Ho!” And that’s all.
There are two kinds of writers, I feel. There are the writers I have known, and I have known many, who talk about themselves: “Me and Myself: A Comparison and a Contrast.” And then there are the other kind. And Cyril was one of the other kind. I’m one of the other kind. Cyril told me that “I wrote an awful lot of junk, learning to be a writer.” And that’s what I’ve done.
JL: Alfred Bester said that too.
PK: Did he? Very interesting. But I don’t know if Bester fits, cause Bester had so much self-hatred. I don’t. Bester hated himself. He hated his Jewish background; he hated every woman he’d been involved with. I don’t know about every woman, but he hated a lot of them. He hated being a male Jew.
Chip Delany has reported to me that Bester said once that before he began writing in the Fifties, all the editors were Jews or Catholics. He said that. That’s not true. There’s one editor who was Jewish: Gold. All the others were Gentiles. Of course, you had Boucher, who was a Catholic. In the Fifties there was Campbell, there was Boucher — and Boucher and Gold just started in the Fifties. There was Lowndes, Paul L. Payne, Malcolm Reiss, Sam Merwin, Howard Browne, all these were Gentiles.
And most Jewish writers — and Bester was one of them, Gold was one of them before he became an editor — felt they had to sound as Gentile as possible. Now, Asimov accused me of trying to sound Gentile with my pen name. This is ridiculous. Coming from Asimov, who in his own way was in retreat from being Jewish, very much, except toward the very end. He wrote a couple of things — Pebble in the Sky is a Jewish story, that’s true. But by and large, Asimov disliked his Jewish background. He never came to terms with it. He knew he was Jewish, and he was baffled by what it meant. Bester knew what it meant and hated it. Gold tried to be as Gentile as possible. I tried to be as Gentile as possible when I began, because I felt you had to be. The pulp magazines all wanted white male pen names, as Anglo-Saxon as possible. I remember being shocked by Asimov’s name on a story. It was so unusual to come across a man like that. Harrison. Smith. Forge. Johnson. Those were pen names in the magazines. Almost always masculine, unless it was for a love story magazine.
JL: With which of your contemporaries did you see your work engaged in a dialogue?
PK: Definitely with Heinlein. I can’t say with Kuttner, because with Kuttner I was trying to sing beside him. To a certain extent with E.E. Smith. Very much with A.E. Van Vogt and his sociological analysis of aliens. Particularly in my story, “The Flat-Eyed Monster,” which was, among other things, written as a parody of an A.E. Van Vogt story.
JL: I have taken the phrase “mental dwindle” from that story and incorporated it into my vocabulary. “Why am I watching such a mindless movie as American Pie? I must be suffering mental dwindle.”
PK: Ah! Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad of that.
In a sense, I was in constant dialogue with John Campbell. He noticed it. And he commented on it. He wanted to know why I didn’t argue with him directly. And I said I didn’t know why. The answer was that I was afraid to. He was my intellectual father. When I was reading Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux, I was reading Campbell and being much more influenced by Campbell. His editorials, much more than his own stories, had a tremendous impact upon me. I try to read them now, and I find it impossible.
JL: What went on in your dialogue with Heinlein?
PK: Well, first of all, I mentioned that back when I began writing — I began trying to write science fiction before the war — and every time I wrote a story, before the war and during the war, Heinlein would come out with it and a magazine would print it. I felt I was at the lag end of a telepathic hookup. And Heinlein explained to me when I met him — he said, “After all, you were reading Astounding; and I was hearing from John some five to seven months earlier. And John’s influence in the magazine, John’s influence on the stories, was coming to me directly. It was coming to you upon publication.” Then he told me that his story, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” he postponed publishing, because he felt it was too close to “Alexander the Bait.” I told him it was a much better story.
Heinlein’s influence on me begins not with his first story, “Lifeline,” which I read and I liked; but his influence on me begins strongly with his first novel. Revolt in 2100, which he’d originally titled, “If This Goes On —.” Because I was a young Marxist, and all of a sudden, somebody had dealt with social science. I now believe that history is the fundamental science of science fiction. Whether it’s the history of technology, history of management science, history of theology, it’s history that it deals with, always. Future history sometimes, past history sometimes, but it’s always history. Certainly alternate history. History is the science of science fiction: history in the sense of the modern discipline of it. And for the first time, in “If This Goes On —,” I saw history being used in science fiction, future history, and it was a revelation to me, very exciting. I’ve always been fascinated by history. It was really history, rather than any of the other science, that fascinated me. Although when I began writing science fiction I moved in a slightly different direction at the beginning. But “Alexander the Bait” is the story of a future history, and very much I’m dealing with the history of the discovery of the New World in the Age of Exploration, put into a future context, of interplanetary exploration.
So Heinlein interested me that way very much. And I began reading him, and I liked almost everything he wrote. One story of his — I’m almost afraid to talk about this, because I don’t know where I’m going when I say it, even today I don’t know where I’m going. But one story of his had a tremendous impact on me, more than any other. I can’t say it influenced me; I can just say it had a great impact.
And that story is “They.” Which I regard as the quintessential science fiction story. Because no matter what I said about everything — I believe in many things simultaneously — I believe science fiction is a literature of paranoia. And “They” expresses that paranoia perfectly. “They” expresses it in purest form.
JL: The Puppet Masters does that.
PK: The Puppet Masters does that. But almost all science fiction, modern science fiction, beginning with Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which is a paranoid story. Go back further, go back to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Paranoid story. We’re being hunted, or about to be hunted, or about to be challenged.
I have never worked out the details of this — I’m afraid to talk about it because I don’t understand which way it goes in my own mind. I know that I feel it very strongly. Always, in the best stories, we are under attack. Always in the best stories, we are about to lose everything. I wrote an essay which was published in the New York Times Book Review in 1988 called “The Orson Welles Panic.” It’s an essay about the Orson Welles panic, and it’s about H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds simultaneously. And it’s a study of paranoia. I didn’t realize it till long after I’d written the essay.
JL: I remember having read that when Campbell was asked why he’d never published Phil Dick, he said, “He’s paranoid.”
PK: Too overtly paranoid is probably what he meant. Too overtly paranoid.
When you speak of a mouse’s eye view of the Jewniverse — I mean a Jew’s eye view of the universe — you’re talking about paranoia too. In that essay I speak of the fact that we are afraid we’re about to be overtaken. And this is something science fiction deals with again and again and again. Overtaken, overpowered, overcome by what? Indians? The future? Time travel? Something of ours which gets out of hand, or out of control?
JL: By Them.
PK: By Them. There’s the editorial “we” and the paranoid “Them.”
JL: Or the Pynchonesque “Them.”
As I said, I have not carried that far enough in my own mind, and I’m almost afraid to. This is something, I feel, if I lift that log, there will be too many things that scurry out. But that’s a feeling I have about science fiction too. Wells’s Men Like Gods — paranoid. Wells’s War of the Worlds — paranoid. Wells’s First Men in the Moon — completely paranoid. Not so much true of The Time Machine — there are moments, but it’s not built into the overall structure of the piece.
War of the Worlds is definitive science fiction which gave birth to a tremendous amount of science fiction, screams in terror all the way through. In not-quite-understandable terror. On the part of the screamer.
I was crazy about Heinlein. The one book where I was not sure I liked Heinlein was Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’ve always considered the point at which the arc descends. In the Seventies, The New York Times asked me to do a review of Time Enough for Love. They wanted a full-dress review, a front-page review, they wanted a retrospective of Heinlein’s career as well as a review of the book, and I agreed to do it. Then they asked me for a profile of Heinlein. They wanted it for the Magazine section. I had written some nonfiction which the editor, Gerald Walker, had liked very much; it had been in the Best Magazine Articles of the Year. And I wanted to do that on Heinlein very badly. Then Heinlein came to see me, and I interviewed him in my home in State College, Pennsylvania, and I had a great interview, great material. And then I read the book. He gave me a copy of the uncorrected galleys. And I knew that whatever nice things I might say about him, the book would have to be the basis for everything, ’cause that was his new book. And I would have to say very negative things about it. I refused to do it. So I called the Times and told them I couldn’t write the profile, I couldn’t write the book review. Someone else could do it. Heinlein meant too much to me in terms of my background, my childhood, my youth, my beginning as a writer, for me to stick a stiletto in his back.
So Heinlein heard about it, and he called me long-distance. And in his best magisterial manner, he said, “Tell me what you, Phil Klass, find so unworthy in this book of mine.” So I tried to wiggle out of it, and I tried to tell him, “There are things one likes, and things one doesn’t like, and everyone’s got his own taste,” and he wouldn’t accept that. He insisted on knowing what and why. So I told him that it was a terribly overwritten book. I said it should have been cut by at least two fifths. I said, “It’s very badly overwritten. It’s overlong, and wanders, and so forth.” And he said, “Well, it may interest you to know that originally that book was twice as long, and I cut it myself.” So I said, “You didn’t do enough.” And he said, “Do you think that my editor’s afraid of me?” And I said, “At this point in your life I think editors are afraid of you, and you act like royalty.” I said, “You think you’re royalty, and you’re not. You’re just a writer.” He said, “I DON’T THINK I’M ROYALTY, AND I DON’T THINK I NEED HAVE ANY CONVERSATION WITH ANYONE WHO THINKS THAT I FEEL I’M ROYALTY.” So he hung up. I felt very bad about it. I’d had some wonderful conversations with him in the past. But I thought that book stank.
I read others of his later. There’s good stuff in all of them, in the later work. A wonderful Page 437. And occasionally also a very good Page 236. But definitely not the Heinlein I enjoy. “If This Goes On —” is unique: it’s one of the few stories in science fiction that suggests that progress is not permanent. I tried to illustrate that in my story “The Masculinist Revolt.” We assume that the feminist revolution, for example, is permanent. But there may be a future in which people are astonished that women once were allowed outside the home. Look at Iran. I knew an Iranian poet who told me that once the Shah was ousted, there would be some real progress! But very little science fiction addresses the possibility of regression.
JL: A Canticle for Liebowitz?
PK: But that’s After the Cataclysm. Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” is After the Cataclysm. There need not be a Cataclysm.
But when Heinlein visited me, he was royalty. We threw a party for him, and people from all over the University called and asked to be invited to that party. I was amazed at the number of people — not in English, God damn ’em — but in departments all over the University. Comparative Literature, administrators, Mineralogy, people who told me that if I didn’t invite them to this party they’d never speak to me again: they just had to be invited. I finally composed a guest list. Nobody under the rank of Department Head would be invited. Associate Deans, and Presidents, and Vice Presidents wanted to be invited. I told Heinlein about it: he was very pleased.
And at the party, he and Ginny sprawled on the couch, and at a given point, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and the Dean of the College of Science came, and I introduced them to Heinlein, and he said, still sitting on the couch — they were standing —“It’s a very nice little college you have here.” And then he said, “Why don’t you gentlemen sit down?” And they sat down at his feet.
I could have poisoned him. Those Deans were both very substantial people.
JL: Did your work have connections with Fredric Brown? Richard Matheson ?
PK: Yes and no. Relevant to what I’ve been talking about. The Shrinking Man is paranoid hysteria. I Am Legend — paranoid hysteria. I respect his work very much.
I was very fond of Fredric Brown. I knew him personally. I wrote an introduction to his What Mad Universe when it was published in book form. About his preoccupation with ontology. Fredric Brown was one writer whom I felt very sympathetic to. Very much I felt he was my kind of writer. Even though I didn’t do any of the things he did. He was also — in science fiction terms purely, not in cheap terms — he was very much of a shtik writer. He published all sorts of little shtiks that were not quite complete stories. Little zinger at the end. I mean, I did that once, in “Project Hush.” He did that constantly.
He was a very successful crime novelist. But What Mad Universe is his great achievement. The novel can be seen in a number of ways, but as I saw it in my introduction, it was essentially his view of science fiction. And he wrote that because — science fiction baffled him. As it did many of the senior practitioners of the field who wrote outside the field a good deal. And he wrote of that bafflement in What Mad Universe. Bafflement of the fan. Bafflement of the content of the field itself.
If you had asked me, however, to name the science fiction writers I now admire the most, or think of, or reread the most, they are: H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Ursula Le Guin. Almost all the work up through The Dispossessed. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Lathe of Heaven definitely. All of the short stuff. These works are enormous, and will stand on the shelf along with the basic canon of science fiction. Along with Stapledon, along with Wells, along with Mary Shelley, along with Orwell, along with Zamyatin. But if I had to choose one writer whose books I would be willing to be alone with, it would be Stapledon. And that’s because he is essentially the science of history. Or the games of history. Or the literature of history.
Copyright 2003 Paradoxa.