Early Days: More Tales From the Pulp Era, p.1Robert Silverberg
In 2006, Robert Silverberg published In the Beginning, a generous selection of stories from the early, developmental stages of his distinguished sixty-year career. Fast-paced, energetic, and unabashedly pulp-like in their origins and ambitions, those stories proved to be an unexpected gift to Silverberg’s many readers. That gift continues with Early Days, a second volume of apprentice fiction as wide-ranging and enjoyable as the first.
Early Days collects seventeen impossible to find stories from the years 1956 to 1958, supplemented by a fascinating introduction and extensive notes on the creation and publication history of each story. Together, these non-fiction pieces constitute both an episodic memoir and an affectionate history of an era when pulp magazines still dominated the SF marketplace.
Without exception each of the stories in Early Days offers honest, unpretentious entertainment. The astonishingly prolific Silverberg may have had a bit to learn back then, but he had an innate understanding of narrative that shines through every one of these tales. The stories range in tone from the grimly dystopian future of “The Inquisitor” to the playful “Space is the Place,” in which a maintenance technician from Crawford IX experiences comic culture shock during a mandatory vacation on Earth. “Rescue Mission” revolves around the telepathic connection between two interplanetary intelligence agents. “Housemaid No. 103” provides a humorous glimpse into the romantic difficulties of a far future matinee idol. “Hardwood’s Vortex” combines a mad scientist, alien invaders, and the possible end of life as we know it into a single colorful narrative.
Silverberg, of course, would evolve into one of the genuine masters of the genre, and this retrospective collection of early work offers in valuable insights into his development. Silverberg himself calls Early Days “an affectionate tribute to my hardworking self of more than half a century ago.” It is all of that and more. Anyone with an interest in Silverberg’s career, or in the history and evolution of modern science fiction, needs to read this book. They may not write ’em like this anymore, but once upon a time they did. And looking back has never been so much fun.
EARLY DAYS: MORE TALES FROM THE PULP ERA
Copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2016 by Agberg, Ltd.
Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2016 by Bob Eggleton
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
For William L. Hamling, Paul W. Fairman,
Robert A. W. Lowndes, and W. W. Scott.
And, as always, for Randall Garrett,
who opened the doors.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Ultimate Weapon
Six Frightened Men
Puppets Without Strings
A Time for Revenge
Housemaid No. 103
Planet of Parasites
Slaves of the Tree
The Aliens Were Haters
Waters of Forgetfulness
You Do Something to Me
There’s No Place Like Space!
More than a decade ago—it was in 2004, I think—I put together a book called In the Beginning, which restored to print sixteen of my short stories from the earliest years of my career, stories which perhaps were not quite as skillful as the ones I would write later on, but which, I think, all bore the recognizable mark of the writer you know as Robert Silverberg. That is to say, they were plainly the work of a very young man—I was still in my teens when I wrote the earliest of them—but, and this is what gives that book its chief point of interest, the stories show the future Robert Silverberg not just in embryo but already in command of the basic narrative skills. I was very prolific in those days, as anyone trying to earn his living by writing for magazines that mostly paid a cent or two a word had to be, and so the stories collected in In the Beginning represent only a fraction of my output in the early years of my career, 1955 to 1958. I was, in fact, not just prolific but wildly prolific—my bibliography lists 62 published stories in 1956, 101 published stories in 1957 (yes, 101, which is two a week that year, week in and week out), and another 84 for 1958—and so In the Beginning merely scratched the surface of the total production. I would not want all of those hundreds of stories brought back into view again. Some of them, indeed, date from my middle teens, and the fact that I was able to find some magazine willing to publish them a few years later does not mean that they show me working at a true professional level. But a lot of them do, and so, here in the seventh decade of my career, I have assembled another group of stories from those early days and am thrusting them into the bright light of the twenty-first century.
That young writer of long ago was not, of course, fully experienced either at the skills of storytelling or in the perils and pitfalls of mature adult life, and these stories show it. Anyone who expects them to read like the work I was doing at the age of 35, or 45, or 55, is going to be disappointed. It must also be borne in mind that I was writing these stories at a time when most of the science-fiction magazines of the day were concerned with delivering fast-moving entertainment for youngish readers; a few writers like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon and two or three others had the privilege of reaching for stylistic power and emotional profundity, but most of us were expected to conform to the narrative conventions that the readers of popular magazines—pulp magazines, they were called, because they were printed on cheap pulp paper—expected. As I said in the introduction to In the Beginning, “I have to confess, right up front here, that you will not find a great deal in the way of poetic vision in these stories, or singing prose, or deep insight into character. Nor are these stories that will tell you much that is new to you about the human condition. These are stories in what is now pretty much a lost tradition in science fiction, the simple and unselfconsciously fast-paced adventure story of the pulp-magazine era. They are stories from the dawn of my career, which began in the closing years of that era, and are straightforward tales of action, in the main, that were written partly for fun and partly for money.”
The money part first: I needed the income that these stories brought in, because I was barely out of college when I wrote the first of them, and the rest followed over the next few years, when I was newly married and just starting out in the world. Writing was my job straight out of college. I had not wanted any other sort of employment, and I made no attempt to find one. But I was not going to be supported by my indulgent parents, nor did I have a trust fund that some thoughtful ancestor had established for me. My livelihood would have to be generated by my typewriter. My wife had a decently paying job, yes, so I can’t say I was completely on my own, but we could hardly have lived on her earnings alone if my writing had failed to bring in an income. Rent had to be paid; furniture for our new apartment had to be bought; the pantry had to be stocked with food; whatever medical expenses we might have came out of our own checkbooks, not out of any medical insurance plan, since such things were rarities then, especially for self-employed writers. Telephone bills, electricity, the cost of typewriter ribbons and typing paper, a haircut now and then, movie tickets, restaurants, subway fares (we lived in Manhattan, where even back then it was madness to own a car), the occasional new pair of shoes—well, writers have expenses just like everyone else. What they don’t have is regular paychecks.
Not that I didn’t want to tell you all sorts of profound things about the human condition, or to win your admiration with unique and unforgettable visions of the worlds to come. I would, of course, have been happy to be earning my living writing nothing but searching, weighty stories of unparalleled artistry and power that would rank me with the greats of the field.
The trouble was that the greats of the field were already in place, and I wasn’t remotely their equal. In the early 1950s when I set out to become a writer the science fiction field already had such people as Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Fritz Leiber in it, all of whom were fifteen or twenty years older than I was, and who had had first-hand experience of a great many aspects of real life (military service, parenthood, financial or marital crisis, the deaths of parents and friends) that I knew about mainly from having read about such things.
Precocious though I was, I couldn’t begin to match those writers in worldly wisdom and I had nowhere near their level of craftsmanship, either. Once in a while one of my stories would find its way onto a magazine’s contents page, tucked away between the newest work of Sturgeon or Bester or Blish or Leiber, but I had no illusions about which writer would get more attention from an editor if manuscripts by Sturgeon and Silverberg were to show up in the same batch of morning mail. So if I wanted to write science fiction for a living, I was going to have to earn the bulk of that living writing unpretentious stories to order for the unpretentious pulp-style magazines that catered to youthful and/or relatively undemanding readers simply looking for a lively read.
But there was also the fun aspect of writing that kind of fiction. I had been reading science fiction since I was about ten years old, and, although I had been an earnest and scholarly little boy who inclined naturally toward the more literary side of science fiction (represented then by the books of H.G. Wells, S. Fowler Wright, Aldous Huxley, John Taine, and Olaf Stapledon and such high-level magazine writers as Sturgeon, Leiber, and Bradbury), my teenage self also had an unabashed fondness for the rip-roaring adventure stories to be found in such gaudily named pulp magazines as Amazing Stories, Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. In their pages I found stories by writers like Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson, Henry Kuttner, and Jack Vance that were every bit as pleasing to me as the statelier kind of s-f (often by the very same writers) that I could read in the three “adult” magazines, Astounding, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I loved the colorful, lively work of the best of the pulp writers, and emulated it in many of my own early stories. So my career got off to a schizoid start, back there in the 1950s: one part of me labored over carefully worked tales intended for such demanding editors as John W. Campbell of Astounding, Horace Gold of Galaxy, and Anthony Boucher of Fantasy & Science Fiction, while another reveled in the opportunity to write slam-bang adventure stories in the Brackett-Anderson-Kuttner-Vance mode for the editors of the lesser magazines that were intended for less fastidious readers of the kind that I myself had been only five or six years before.
There was nothing very unusual about operating on both these levels of science fiction at once. Such cerebral writers as Blish and Isaac Asimov and Damon Knight, and such poetic ones as Sturgeon and Bradbury, were unabashed contributors to Planet Stories, the wildest and pulpiest of all the slam-bang s-f magazines. (I came along just a little too late to join them there: to my great regret, Planet went out of business just as I was getting started.) For them, as it would be for me a few years later, the motives were mixed ones—the need to earn some quick dollars, sure, but also the jolly pleasure of turning out an uninhibited action story at high speed. None of them saw any kind of rigid compartmentalizing in what they were doing: a story was a story, science fiction was science fiction, and not everything they wrote had to be something intended for the ages. My own particular hero, Henry Kuttner, who under an assortment of pseudonyms had written dozens of the greatest science-fiction short stories ever conceived, had also, quite cheerfully, given the world reams and reams of pulpy non-masterpieces with titles like “War-Gods of the Void,” “Crypt-City of the Deathless One,” and “Avengers of Space.” If the great Kuttner could do it, I told myself, so could I. Maybe not as well as he could, not then, but in the same mode, at least.
When I was twenty years old, the doors to that pulp-magazine world opened for me (or, more precisely, were opened for me by my friend and collaborator of those days, Randall Garrett) and I was given my own chance to produce reams and reams of stories, all of them accepted and sometimes paid for in advance, for the action magazines. Sure, I went into it for the money. As I’ve said, I had the rent to pay, just like everyone else. But also I found real joy in writing at such great velocity, creating cardboard worlds with flying fingers and sweaty forehead—a 20-page story in a morning, a 40-page novelet in one six-hour working day. I had the youthful energy to do that, day in and day out, throughout the year. I was, somewhat to the consternation of my older colleagues, a juggernaut, unstoppable, who was destined to break all records for prolificity in science fiction. And I loved the cognate fun of knowing that I had made myself part of a pulp-writer tradition that went back through those early favorites of mine, Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett and Poul Anderson and the rest, to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, Robert E. Howard, and the other famous high-volume writers of a pulp generation that had thrived before I was born.
Even as I wrote these stories, I knew them for what they were: work meant primarily to entertain, not to blaze new literary paths or to help establish a place for myself among the great writers of science fiction. I never abandoned my hope of achieving that, of course, and as time went along I concentrated less on the problem of merely paying the rent and more on the challenge of adding something new and memorable of my own to the literature of science fiction. And, by and by, the emphasis on quality overtook the emphasis on quantity for me, and these early stories of mine receded into oblivion, although those readers with a sense of the history of the field remained aware that I had written such things once.
As I re-read them for the present book, I felt the temptation to touch up these early works here and there, of course, to add a bit of extra color, to replace this or that semi-colon with a dash, to remove some bit of sensationalizing plot machinery, or otherwise to modify the text in the light of all that I’ve learned about storytelling in the past sixty years. But I resisted it. Doing that sort of ex post facto rewrite job would have been unfair to the young man who turned these stories out. I have no business imposing on them the accumulated wisdom, such as it may be, of the veteran writer I now am, and also it would have defeated the main purpose of this book, which is to bring back into view, as
Here, then, is a group of stories I wrote for long-forgotten magazines, stories written extremely quickly, stories in which, for the most part, I stayed rigorously within the boundaries of the pulp-magazine tradition. By way of deviating from the tried and true narrative formulas I allowed myself only the luxury of killing off my protagonist occasionally, something that would have been unthinkable in the pulps of the 1940s but which was sometimes permissible in the decade that followed; but in general, good struggles with evil in these stories and evil usually (not always) loses.
I will not try to deceive you into thinking that there are any unjustly neglected masterpieces here. I think they still make lively reading, yes, or I would not be allowing them to poke their noses back into visibility now. But I hope I’ve made it sufficiently clear that even at the time I wrote them these stories weren’t meant as high art—the magazines that bought them had no interest in publishing high art, only good solid basic pulp fiction—and I offer them here in that archaeological spirit I mentioned a few lines back, delvings into long-buried strata that provide demonstrations of who I was and what I was doing as a writer all those years ago.
I did, it must be said, learn a great deal about writing fiction from writing these stories: how to open a story in an interesting way and keep it moving, how to set a scene and sketch in a character (however roughly) without a lot of ponderous exposition, how to provide with a few quick touches the sort of color and inventiveness that makes people want to read science fiction in the first place. So these stories have some technical interest and some historical interest, too, for they are, after all, the work of the same man who would write Dying Inside, “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Born with the Dead,” and all the other books and stories for which the Science Fiction Writers of America would reward me, in 2004, with the highest honor of the science-fiction world, its Grand Master award. Is it possible to detect the touch of a future Grand Master in these early stories? Maybe not, because even when they were written they represented the side of him that was producing, at improbably high volume, stories meant to be fun to read and nothing more. I never pretended that stories like “Planet of Parasites” or “Slaves of the Tree” were the best science-fiction I had in me. But, for better or for worse, they were part of my evolutionary curve. I have never repudiated them, or anything else that I wrote along the way. And here they are again, these artifacts of a vanished age, seventeen of my earliest stories rescued from the jaws of time and given their first printings in book form.
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