WHEN I WAS WRITING

 

A Literary Memoir

by

Tom Purdom

 

 

 

Installment Three: PsiFi

 

 

In the history of science fiction, John W. Campbell, Jr. is noted for two things. He was the editor who transformed pulp science fiction into a respectable literary genre and he had an unfortunate tendency to become infatuated with half-baked pseudo-scientific ideas.

Sometime in the 50ís, Campbell became obsessed with telepathy, telekinesis, and other kinds of extra-sensory mental power. The subject had normally been referred to as "extra-sensory perception" outside the science fiction world, but Campbell dubbed it psionics, for reasons I have never bothered to track down. By the end of the fifties, Campbell was publishing so many psi stories that some wits suggested he should call his magazine Astounding Psionce Fiction.

It was, as far as I was concerned, one of the worst things that had ever happened to science fiction. I had started beefing up my science background a few years after I left college and I had been reading Scientific American and other sources of good science writing. I had worked my way through articles that buzzed with unfamiliar terms like nucleotide and mRNA and acquired a fuzzy understanding of the developments taking place in molecular biology. Anybody could see that we were standing on the brink of revolutionary developments in the life sciences. Science fiction writers were ignoring very real possibilities and filling the science fiction magazines with stories about something that was probably never going to become a factor in the real world.

In the 30ís and 40ís, Campbell had midwifed a literary form that laid equal stress on literary values and knowledgeable scientific and technological extrapolation. Now he was popularizing a type of science fiction that could be written by writers who didnít know the difference between a molecule and an atom.

Still, in spite of that, I felt that psi was a legitimate science fiction subject, in moderation. Alfred Besterís telepathy novel, The Demolished Man, was one of the landmarks of the early 50ís. Besterís teleportation novel, The Stars My Destination, is one of the most influential science fiction novels ever written. I had also been struck by a Poul Anderson short story, "Night Song", which was a kind of anti-psi story.

Somebody-- I think it was James Blish-- had pointed out that the average psi story treated telepathy as if it was a variation on the telephone. Anderson had understood that a telepath would have to develop an enormous tolerance for human nature. The narrator of his story is a telepath who has been receiving the thoughts of the people around him since he was a child. In a few perfectly written pages, "Night Song" portrays a man who has been exposed to the unvarnished reality of human nature and learned to accept it.

I had even written two psi stories myself. The first one had been composed when I was still living in Florida. It was called "Number Ten Downing Street" and it described a telepathic duel between a telepathic prime minister and the telepaths who were trying to break through his defenses and kill him. H.L. Gold rejected it with a personal note telling me had almost purchased it for Galaxy. He had rejected it, he said, because he had been buying too many esp stories.

Gold had published The Demolished Man about a year earlier, and triggered off the first wave of esp stories. If he had bought my opus, I would have become a selling writer while I was still in the ninth grade.

In the second story, I had carried Poul Andersonís idea one step further and assumed a telepath would receive the emotions of the people around him.

Freudian psychology teaches us that we drive certain emotions out of our consciousness because we find them shameful or evil. Some of the emotions a telepath would receive from others would be the emotions he was repressing. Wouldnít he react by attacking the source of the emotions, in the same way we normal, untelepathic humans often attack people who display the traits we are repressing? My story, "In the Country of the Horta", described an entire species that had developed telepathy and reacted to the development by becoming paranoids. Nobody bought it, but I resurrected the Horta a few years later and gave them a pivotal role in my first paperback.

A few weeks before I received my draft notice, I started reading a book on the history of witchcraft. I donít know why I decided to read such a book. I have only one memory of its contents. I took it on a trip to the New Jersey shore and it set off a train of thought while I was lying on the beach reading.

The book had evoked a picture of the worldview many of our ancestors lived with. They had lived in a world, as far as they were concerned, in which an individual who might be located miles away, someone you had never met, could strike you down at any time. Wouldnít a world infested with people who possessed psi powers look exactly like the world they believed they inhabited?

In many psi stories, the hero simply discovered he possessed his powers. I visualized a future in which we had developed some way to uncover our latent powers. In most science fiction stories written at that time, it seemed to me, the technological devices were usually machines of some kind. I wanted something different-- something no one else seemed to be using. I would have my characters use drugs, I decided. (This seems laughable now, but the big boom in drug use still lay a few years in the future.)

In my future world, we had developed drugs that unleashed the psi powers. But the drugs had to be used under controlled, carefully monitored conditions. People who simply swallowed a few pills and started receiving emotions and moving objects with their minds could respond to the emotions flowing into their brains by becoming paranoid or catatonic. Some of them would become homicidal.

I tried to maintain the connection with magic as I developed the background. Hovering in the back of the story, never explicitly stated, was the idea that the witches and magicians of the past had really been Talents, as people with psi powers were called in the story. Ritual and the use of physical objects helped Talents control their powers. If you wanted to kill someone at a distance, for example, you focused your mind by stabbing and slashing a picture of your victim.

The hero would be a Talent who had learned to control his powers. He would subdue homicidal experimenters by merging with their minds and overcoming their emotions. He would triumph primarily because he possessed the virtues of tolerance, compassion, and total self-understanding.

He would obviously need years of training. But it seemed to me he would need any crutch that would help him maintain his sanity when he was merged with a deranged mind. He should have some kind of religious faith, I decided-- a set of beliefs that would keep him functioning when more rational techniques failed.

 

When science fiction writers inserted religion into their stories, they usually opted for Catholicism. Catholics had a semi-military bureaucracy, colorful rituals, and an intellectually sophisticated theology.

Protestant characters tended to be ignorant, anti-science fanatics, like the members of the puritanical sect depicted in Heinleinís novel Revolt in 2100. I had attended a Southern fundamentalist church during some of my teenage years, so I had no trouble accepting Heinleinís vision of a future religious dictatorship. I had seen first-hand the kind of Protestant religious leaders who sometimes bedeviled the protagonists of science fiction stories.

One of the ministers we knew in Florida once told his wife he wanted to go for a drive on a Sunday night when it was pouring rain. He bundled his family into the car and they drove around in the dark. They passed a church where a friend of his was preaching a Sunday evening service and his wife suggested they go in. The minister shook his head and they drove on. They passed the church a couple of more times and the minister shook his head each time.

Inside the church, the ministerís friend had been talking up the need for a revival. A revival generally lasted two weeks. Every night there would be a collection. The visiting minister would get a share of the proceeds. The church-- and its minister-- would pocket the rest.

The ministerís friend reached the climax of his service. He bowed his head and prayed, fervently, for the great revival his church needed. Send us, he prayed, a preacher who can lead us out of sinÖ.a man who can give us the kind of revival this church needs.

The preacher said Amen, the congregation opened its eyes, and lo-- the man they had prayed for was standing in the door, sent by the Lord at the exact right moment.

Another preacher once asked us to imagine that the word RESSURECT had been written in flaming letters across the front of the church. He then went through each letter and told us what it meant. When he got to the second E, he advised us it stood for Except.

"Except the Lord," he yelled, "and you will be saved!"

My father was a fundamentalist Southern Baptist and my mother was an Italian Catholic who had grown up in Hartford, Connecticut. They had met because the Navy had a submarine base in New London. I had been exposed to Catholicism when we lived with my motherís relatives in Connecticut during World War II and Protestant fundamentalism when we lived in Florida.

By the time I reached my early twenties, I had become areligious. I didnít feel hostile to religion but I didnít need it either. I was perfectly content-- and still am-- with a worldview shaped by totally secular philosophers like Confucius and Albert Camus; skeptics like Voltaire and Lucian of Samasota; the tragic outlook of works like the Iliad and A Farewell to Arms; and all the literature, including science fiction, that connects you to the pulse and flow of life.

Religion was one of the major reasons Sara and I hesitated to get married. Her religious beliefs were an important part of Saraís life. She had earned her graduate degree at one of the leading Protestant seminaries in the United States-- McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She had studied everything a Presbyterian minister studied except Latin and Greek. She had a well-organized theological worldview that I found interesting and respectable, even if I didnít share it.

When I look back over my life and contemplate my parentsí marriage and the forty-six years Sara and I were married, I find myself drawing a moral. I think itís one of the most important thoughts Iíve ever had.

If a fundamentalist Baptist and a Roman Catholic marry, theyíre probably going to have trouble. If a Presbyterian lady and a secular gentleman marry, they will probably do all right.

Religion-- like politics-- should never override common decency and basic courtesy.

During our young-married period, Sara would sometimes sit down with our Catholic and Jewish friends and discuss the beliefs they shared and the points on which they differed. They were all obviously having a good time.

I had read some of the writings of Reinhold Niehbuhr, the great Protestant theologian who had campaigned against pacifism and appeasement in the years before World War II, so I knew Protestantism had a theological tradition that was just as intellectually disciplined as the Catholic tradition. My relationship with Sara and her friends increased my familiarity with the higher levels of Protestant thought. I decided my heroís religion would be a variation on Protestant Christianity that reflected some of the undercurrents I was picking up. Religions, it seemed to me, tend to go through cycles. They start with enthusiasm and genuine emotion and ossify into rote rituals and rigid codes of conduct. Then a reformer emerges-- a Buddha, a Jesus, a Martin Luther-- and they return to their fundamental visions and emotions.

In most Protestant churches at that time, communion was a cold, uninspiring ritual centering on little squares of store-bought cottony bread and miniscule glasses filled with sips of grape juice. In my future religion, communion would be a true communal feast, with real wine, big round loaves of fresh baked bread, and lots of socializing. It would be a looser, more colorful, more emotionally liberated form of Protestant Christianity. It was, in fact, a rather accurate foreshadowing of the developments that took place in many Protestant churches over the next decade.

The name for this religion came from a magazine cartoon. Americans were just discovering Zen-Buddhism at that time. It had become a fad among California beatniks. Most of the people I knew had heard of things like the sound of one hand clapping. In the cartoon, two Japanese hipsters were walking through Tokyo. "Honorable cat," one says, "itís the greatest-- Zen-Christianity!"

My hero would be called Andrew Sordman-- a not very subtle linkage to traditional fantasy heroes. His religion would be called Zen-Christianity.

 

"Sordman the Protector" was my first kitchen-sink story-- as in "throw in everything but the kitchen sink." Alfred Bester once argued that everything in a science fiction story should be different. If your hero checked into a hotel, you should ask yourself what a hotel would be like in the 25th century and show the reader the differences.

I hadnít read that statement yet but I would have agreed with it if I had. There had been some talk about disposable paper clothing around this time so I had the people in my story wear elaborate formal clothing which they changed several times a day. Sordman wears a gray morning coat in the morning and switches to something else in the afternoon. The characters in the story address each other by formal, somewhat Germanic titles, such as Manager, Citizen, and Politician.

I had sported a beard for a few months about this time and it had come in red. Sordman became "a big young man with shaggy black hair and a red beard." (I had a crew cut, just for the record.)

I also gave Sordman some writerly magic. I had discovered-- like a lot of people-- that I did some of my best thinking when my hands were occupied with routine tasks. Sordman maintains his mental focus by juggling when he turns on his full powers. I kept certain objects in my writing area as I moved from apartment to apartment, so it would look the same everywhere I went, and Sordman wears special clothes for the same reason.

For the setting, I grabbed an idea Frank Lloyd Wright had been publicizing-- a mile high building. In the America of the story, the landscape is dominated by mile high buildings. Every building is a complete city, with stores, offices, apartments, theaters-- everything you would find in a city. The land around the buildings is mostly occupied by forest-- another touch that linked the story with the world of magic.

Structurally, the story was a classic mystery story. A murder is committed and the hero interrogates people. Sordman had some residual ability to pick up peopleís emotions even when he wasnít drugged and I found this was a concept that had literary potential. In mystery novels, the writer usually heightens interest during interrogation scenes by presenting us with a series of interesting characters. In my interrogation scenes, thanks to Sordmanís powers, I could go right to the heart of a characterís motivations in a couple of paragraphs.

The climax comes when the murderer bolts before Sordman can arrest him. He runs into the forest with a lynch mob in pursuit and Sordman must turn on his full powers and bring the murderer under control before the lynch mob finds him.

A touch of sex underlined Sordmanís religious liberation. He is supposed to stay in touch with his body while he is cavorting with his mental powers, so he calls his wife on the visiphone and asks her to undress for him. She is a bit surprised-- "Andy!" she says, "My, my"-- but she fulfills his request with good-natured enthusiasm.

I sent the story off to Scott Meredith and they let me know they were taking it out to market. It was the last story I wrote before I started my two years in the army.

 

A funny thing happened to me during basic training. I discovered I didnít feel comfortable with the idea of killing people in cold blood.

I had never considered myself a pacifist. I had reached my teens, and started thinking about politics, at a time when everybody agreed that the carnage of World War II could have been avoided if the democracies had been willing to fight when the fascists started their aggressions. I believed President Truman had made the correct decision when he had decided to resist the North Korean attack on South Korea. I thought the Cold War policy of containment made sense. I didnít like being in the army but I couldnít object to it on moral grounds. I put up with all the things I hated, did what I was supposed to, and reminded myself that this was a temporary ordeal. I even took some pleasure in the fact that I had shot two points short of expert when we had qualified with our rifles.

The feeling that disturbed me crept into my consciousness during a routine night firing exercise. We were dug in on a hill and we were supposed to fire into the darkness, where an imaginary enemy was advancing toward us. We were rehearsing an ambush, and I could imagine what that would be like in real life. We wouldnít be firing in the heat of battle. We would be deliberately mowing people down before they knew we were there.

I decided I was an emotional pacifist, even if I wasnít an intellectual pacifist. It was a conclusion that had no practical significance. There were no wars going on at the time. After basic training, I would probably be assigned to some kind of support job. Most people in the army were.

When I got my orders at the end of basic training I had the weird feeling someone in the army had read my mind and found the perfect compromise. I was supposed to report to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the home of the Army Medical Corps. If I ever went into combat, I would go as a medic. I would be exposed to the same dangers as the combat troops, but my primary mission would be saving lives, not killing.

As I realized later, no one in the army had peeked into my soul. Bright draftees usually ended up in two specialties, clerk-typist and medic. If you were a three year volunteer, you could choose almost any specialty the army offered. If you were a two year draftee, the army had to assign you to a specialty that only required two or three months extra training after basic. I had inadvertently volunteered for the medical corps when I had gone through a receiving line shortly after I had been drafted. A clerk had asked me what I wanted to do in the army and I had told him I didnít want to do clerical work. I had done clerical work in civilian life, I said. I would like to do something else.

 

One evening, while I was still training at Fort Sam, the mail clerk called my name at mail call, as expected. Sara wrote me every day and I usually managed to scratch out a daily letter to her. This time my mail contained something unexpected-- an envelope from Scott Meredith. They had sold "Sordman the Protector" to Galaxy.

My memory of the event is pretty hazy. I think I was still getting used to army life. I do remember that my initial reaction created a stir up and down the line I was standing in. I had never told anybody I was a writer. The guy next to me said "I thought you worked for the airlines!" and I apologetically mumbled that I was a writer, too.

Sordman was 10,000 words long, so it was my first novelette sale, as well as my first sale to one of the Big Three. All my previous sales had been short stories that ran 3-5,000 words. In the magazines, novelettes were stories of about 10-15,000 words and they usually carried the bylines of writers with recognizable names. The stories that got top billing on the covers were usually novelettes. Beginners wrote short stories.

Non-writers sometimes think thereís something funny about the fact that some publications pay by the word. Theyíll ask you if you get paid for words like the and with. They usually want to know if you throw in extra words so youíll get paid more.

Full time high-volume pulp writers certainly did some padding, but Iíve always tried to write the tightest prose I can put together. I like tight, economical writing and shorter works are easier to sell. A 5,000 word story that sells earns a bigger check than a 6,000 word story that doesnít. I had decided this story should weigh in at 10,000 words when I had first conceived it and I had adhered to that self-imposed word limit all the time I had been writing it.

 

"Sordman the Protector" appeared in the August, 1960 issue of Galaxy. I was putting in my time at my final duty station, the medical section of a tank battalion stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had acquired several friends who were science fiction readers and aspiring writers. The story didnít get cover billing but H.L. Gold gave it something that we all found just as impressive-- three illustrations by Wallace Wood.

Wally Wood was one of the illustrators who had established MAD magazine in its first incarnation, when it was a comic book that made fun of the other comics. He had an uncanny ability to duplicate the style of the comic he was spoofing. He was one of the best illustrators in the business and he had produced one of the best illustrations my stories have ever received.

The main illustration was a full pager that depicted the moment when Sordman turned on his powers. It contained four portraits of Sordman, rising up the page through a haze of cosmic clouds-- a heroic figure floating in a storm of fundamental forces. I had visualized Sordman as beefy and Wood drew him as muscular, but that was a minor matter. Wood had portrayed Sordman as I had described him-- a big young man with shaggy hair and a beard--and he had captured the essence of my vision.

Woodís other drawings were just as effective. One of them showed the moment when the murderer runs away. It was a front view, with Sordman in the background, and Gold had placed it in the center of the two page spread. You turned the page and wham-- he was running right toward you. The three illustrations evoked the mood of the story as well as it could possibly be evoked-- probably better than the author had.

I never met Wally Wood but I have talked to some of the other artists who have illustrated my work. In the science fiction world, the top illustrators and cover artists are just as well known and admired as the top writers. The best of them are some of the pleasantest, most interesting people in the business. As Woodís illustrations for "Sordman" demonstrate, most of them really do read the words they embellish with their work.

 

The daily letters Sara and I had been exchanging had continued our discussions about marriage. By the time I came home on leave at Christmas, we had about decided we were going to take the plunge. Sara had even picked the engagement ring she wanted.

I bought the ring the day before my final proposal. I had known she had been engaged once before so I was a little surprised by her reaction when I put the ring on her finger. It turned out this was the first time she had been engaged "with a ring."

I felt the ring she had chosen summed up the things we had in common, in spite of our religious differences. In those days, an inexpensive diamond ring cost fifty dollars. The rings most young women flourished in front of their friends usually cost hundreds of dollars. I had assumed I would buy her a fifty dollar ring-- the best I could afford on a privateís pay.

Instead, she had picked a ring she had seen in a center city second hand store. It had a miniscule diamond-- one sixteenth of a karat--- but it had an ornate, old fashioned setting she liked. It cost twenty-seven dollars.

My fiancťe had outmaneuvered all the pressures that commerce and social custom apply to young brides. She had picked a ring that seemed special partly because it had cost so little. I thought there was something supremely classy about a woman who could pull that off.

 

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Copyright 2005 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

When I Was Writing: Installment One When I was Writing: Installment Two

When I was Writing: Installment Four

When I was Writing: Installment Five

When I was Writing: Installment Six

When I was Writing: Installment Seven

When I was Writing: Installment Eight

When I was Writing: Installment Nine

When I was Writing: Installment Ten

Grieve for a Man (complete text)


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