A.E. van Vogt: A Writer with a Winning Formula
Interview by Jeffrey M. Elliot, 1979.
Copyright 1979 by R. Reginald and Jeffrey M. Elliot, in Science Fiction Voices #2: Interviews with Science Fiction Writers, Borgo Press.
There are few science fiction writers alive today who can boast the singular achievements of A. E. van Vogt, a long-time talent in the fleld, who has spent his lifetime giving meaning and import to the shape of things to come. Most at home with books and ideas, van Vogt prizes the gifts of reason and logic, and uses them to solve life's myriad puzzles. Clearly, van Vogt personifies the mysteries and vagaries of the human intellect, a fact which is reflected in everything he says and does.
A. E. van Vogt is a problem-solver par excellence. Nothing excites him more than inventing a "system" to solve a vexing dilemma. Although many science fiction critics view him as a "traditionalist," his writing reflects a deep love for the "experimental." This concern is evidenced in his life as well, which reveals a man who delights in invention. Indeed, he has studied the machinations of violence, employed the Bates system for enhancing visual acuity, analyzed the "money personality," and pioneered a technique for recording dreams. He is presently engaged in a Herculean effort to simultaneously master 200 world languages.
These personal experiments are also mirrored in his work, which demonstrates a keen interest in such salient concepts as hypnotism, telepathy, semantics, "similarization," and Dianetics. These thoughts and others are explored in his numerous books, including such popular works as: Slan, The World of Nul1-A, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, The Weapon Shops of Isher, The Winged Man, The Darkness on Diamondia, Children of Tomorrow, Destination: Universe!, and Mission to the Stars, among others.
A. E. van Vogt lives high atop the Hollywood Hills. His home looks warm and lived-in cluttered with old furniture and memorabilia, most of it collected by his late wife, E. Mayne Hull. Van Vogt is a literary dynamo. He is currently penning several novels and anthologies as well as mapping out plans for new ventures in film and television. Indeed, he recently completed his first full-length screenplay. Van Vogt is an impressive man-towering in stature, resolute in tone,ebullient in spirit. He possesses a commanding intellect, a dry wit, and an old-world manner. In many ways, he resembles a fine old watch-delicately tuned, precise in declaration, built with superb workmanship and choice parts.
Van Vogt is the genuine article, a by-product of an earlier day which valued simple virtues and pleasures. There is no condescension in his pitch, haughtiness in his demeanor, falseness in his words, or insincerity in his actions. Van Vogt's manner is shy, but inviting. His carefully chiselled face highlights his penetrating eyes, robust smile, and demonstrative expressions. This afternoon, he appears healthy, well-rested, and prepared for the discussion which will ensue. As always, van Vogt speaks softly, precisely, eagerly. Flanked by a glass of sherry on one side, and a pile of notes and papers on the other, he proceeds to answer my questions. As I weigh his responses, I am clearly impressed. His answers are striking: comprehensive and without hesitation or embellishment. His voice commands attention. He is both decisive and energetic. He listens to my questions with rapt interest. With skill and polish, he zeroes in on the essential, evidencing a wealth of knowledge and understanding.
JE: What early life experiences inspired your interest in writing?
VV: I've given several answers to this question. But I should report that when I visited my mother in 1961 (when she was age seventy-four), I discovered to my silent astonishment that she took full credit for my being a writer. It seems that when she was carrying me, she read a lot of mystery stories. At the time, she had the thought that she wanted the coming child to be an author of mystery novels. All through my prenatal period she held that thought firmly in her mind. In using the word "silent" a moment ago, I didn't mean to challenge the unscientific nature of her claim. And, in fact, in a world in which people are essentially automatic products of their early conditioning, hers is as good an explanation as any. However, the closest I've come to writing a mystery is The House That Stood Still-which has just this year been optioned as a potential movie by an Italian producer-director. My own explanation of why I became a writer is quite different. Actually, I fell out of a second-storey window when I was age two and a half, and was unconscious for three days, near death. Later, using hypnosis, and then still later, Dianetics, in an effort to reduce the trauma of those three days, I discovered that unconsciousness has in it endless hallucinations. The normal part of my brain has probably spent a lifetime trying to rationalize the consequent fantasies and images. This could explain a lot about my bent for science fiction.
JE: Why did you turn to science fiction as a means of expression?
VV: When my family (I was age ten at the time) moved to a small town in Manitoba, Canada, I discovered some books on the teacher's desk. She allowed me to read them, and I often stayed in at recess to do this reading. One of my reasons for staying in during the fifteen minute morning and afternoon play times was, that as a newcomer, I was the same age as the most violent pre-teeners in the school. Every time I went out, another gang of age nine-ten-eleven year old kids would force me to fight one of their stronger members. I won every such fight; and it was a fair fight-the gang didn't pounce on me in retaliation-but I was a reluctant battler, and felt myself surrounded by hostility. Later, many of these boys became my friends; so it was evidently a normal boyhood situation. One of the books on the teacher's desk was on Napoleon. Several were fairy tales. I read the fairy tales and the book about Napoleon with equal avidity. Unfortunately, the teacher kept urging me to go outside. I had no way to resist her. When she said, "Alfred, you go out and play. It's not a good thing for a boy to read all the time!" . . . I went. But I read my first fairy tales in her classroom. And I discovered that I enjoyed fantasy. My family had a brief interlude move to the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba (1926-1928). It was in Winnipeg in November, 1926, that I saw this strange magazine with the fantastic cover, with the name Amazing Stories, on a newsstand. I bought that November issue and subsequent issues. And then in the autumn of 1928, when we were back in Morden, I asked the local druggist to order it for me. He ordered two copies, thinking maybe someone else would be interested. No one else ever bought a copy. The following summer, just before we moved back to Winnipeg, a friend, whose father had a farm, mentioned to me that the farmhands were short of reading material. Did I have anything? I loaned him all my back issues of Amazing. Two months later, I asked him to return them. He was surprised. He said, "Oh, they read them, and threw them in the trash. They thought they were a bunch of crazy junk." Actually, this assessment wasn't too far from the truth. With Hugo Gernsback gone, Amazing published poorer stories each month. I finally stopped buying it. But I remembered the great stories later on. And I had my background in the field solidly embedded in my mind for the day in 1938 when I picked up the July issue of Astounding with the story "Who Goes There?" in it. After reading that remarkable novella, I submitted to John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor, the idea for "Vault of the Beast." When he encouraged me to write it, I was launched.
JE: Are you essentially a self-taught writer?
VV: Yes. I operate in various life situations by what I call "systematic thoughts." In my early years, I read numerous books on writing. I finally found a combination of systems which I learned the way one learns a discipline. I wrote my stories in what the author of my most treasured text on writing called "fictional sentences." The first story I ever sold was a confession-type, which was bought by the True Story magazine chain. It was 9,000 words long. And so it probably contains 1,000-1,200 sentences. I consciously-and this is what discipline (system) means-wrote every one of the 1,000 as a fictional sentence. For a confession story, this required that every sentence have an emotion in it. The treasured text, which I just mentioned; was The Only Two Ways to Write a Story, by John W. Gallishaw. Gallishaw had observed in the best writers of his day, also, that they wrote stories in what was roughly a series of 800-word scenes. Each scene divided into five steps. And this system I also did in my disciplined way. No piece of music was ever more rigidly organized than the five steps of these scenes-the wordage could vary slightly, but not much. In my naivete at the time, I thought I was revealing one of my precious secrets, when I discussed my method back in 1948, in an article on writing, science fiction, which was published in Lloyd Eshbach's Of Worlds Beyond. So far as I know, though, only one writer-and I may have misheard him-subsequently told me that he has found the method valuable. In the years that. followed, I read a variety of comments on my 800-word scenes. Without exception, everybody had misread the description. An English professor, quoting an American critic, wrote in Foundation, an excellent science fiction publication issued quarterly in England, that I changed the entire direction of my story every 800 words, and that no doubt this was the reason I, was known as the master of confusion.
JE: Closely related to your 800-word scenes is your use of story "hang-ups-" How do they figure into your approach?
VV: Early in my career, a major technique of mine was to write a "hang-up" into every sentence. The reader who tried to skim, as critics tend to do (they just want to get an idea of what the story is about) would quickly bog down, because he wasn't making the contribution to each sentence that the method required. My regular readers don't get confused, because they're able to make the necessary contribution. The hang-up in each sentence was, by my theory, the science fiction "fictional sentence." A science fiction fictional sentence as I write it, has to have a hang-up in it, ideally. My first science fiction story- though it wasn't the first published-"Vault of the Beast," opened: "The creature crept." The reader doesn't know what kind of creature. That is the hang-up. Another sentence: "This caricature of a human shape reached into one of those skin folds with that twisted hand, and drew out a small, gleaming metal object." There are four hang-ups in that sentence. When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence, as I mentioned earlier, had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don't say, "I lived at 323 Brand Street." You say, "Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street." If your story has 1,000 sentences in it, every sentence should have an emotion in it. It is my belief that stories written with these hang-ups, particularly, will endure longer than other types of stories. The reason is simple: readers of each generation will contribute meaning from their own time, their own era, filling in the gaps with data that I don't have now, or didn't have when I wrote the story.
JE: A number of prominent themes loom large in your work, one of which is the "superman" motif. Are there others of equal importance?
VV: I am told that the "superman" theme permeates my stories. However, that's a superficial view of what I'm up to. Looking back, I have to surmise that I was smarter than I realized. I early saw the problem of the life-death cycle and wondered if the cycle could be-and this is really the correct word (and thought)-extended. In my stories, accordingly, I explored one immortality option after another. And I would guess that a combination of medical science (for disease), physical exercise, formal psychotherapy, and mental warding-off mechanisms (or philosophies) for avoiding the shock and stress from the grimmer aspects of everyday existence, is the beginning of the answer.
JE: How extensively do you research a novel before sitting down to write it?
VV: When I work on a story, I read extensively about the science-or what ever-necessary for the underlying factual accuracy. And, of course, any major interest gets put into my current stories. In Pendulum, for example, I use some unusual dialects-sparingly, of course, but enough to indicate that I've familiarized myself with two little-known languages: Frisian, a dialect of north Holland, and Raeto-Romanic, the fourth language of Switzerland. Many people have heard of this last, but no one else ever-except myself-was interested enough to find out what kind of language it was. (It's another way that ancient Latin came up to modern times.) In writing my Red China novel, The Violent Man (not science fiction), starting in 1954, I began to accumulate books on China and Communism, and altogether in the eight years it took me to write this double- length novel, I read and re-read about 100 basic books on the subject. This novel was reissued in 1978 by Pocket Books, a major United States paperback publisher. Among my science fiction, probably my two non-Aristotelian novels, The World of Null-A and The Players of Null A, are my most obviously well- researched stories, since they deal with the ideas of Alfred Korzybski as expounded in his masterwork Science and Sanity. These novels have probably interested more people in General Semantics than any other books, science fiction or otherwise.
JE: Do you make a conscious attempt to portray a specific view of science in your work?
VV: I accept science as an attempt to establish an orderly explanation of everything that has happened in the universe since the Big Bang. It has, however, been interesting to observe that at least a couple of generations of scientists got involved (as a consequence of the positive philosophy of the last century) in promoting specific, limited explanations of this or that phenomenon, and that there are still a lot of people around who accept the current theorems as if they were the word of God instead of, possibly, being intermediate explanations for what may eventually be a more comprehensive understanding of the"reality" of things. If there is any particular view of science in my work, it is most likely that science is, at this intermediate stage, evaluating the dynamic truth of the enigma that underlies all that we perceive in the surrounding continuum.
JE: Given the tremendous emphasis you place on logic, how important is imagination in the context of your writing?
VV: Writing science fiction has been a major cause for the development of both my imagination and my sense of logic. Everything I wrote, or studied in connection with writing, expanded my consciousness. Studies that I made which began as imagination often ended up as systematic thoughts, by which I subsequently handled my life and my associations with other people. There has been a continual feedback between imagination and reality. And I believe this also happens to people who read science fiction.
JE: Do you have a particular "system" when it comes to creating story characters?
VV: Yes. To identify minor characters, I assign them a neuroticism: that's character, by my system. The gooder the good guy, the less character he has, by these standards. So in him; I place a timeless truth. Gosseyn, in the Null A stories, is a General Semantician. When Patricia and he sleep in adjoining twin beds in the same room, she's in no danger. Fully trained General Semantic types don't become sexually involved with neurotic members of the opposite sex. In Slan, Jommy is a telepath and a morally superior mutation. In Voyage of the Space Beagle, Grosvenor is trained in, and manifests, Nexialism.
JE: In recent years, your approach to writing has come in for some rather harsh criticism. Has your style changed significantly over the years?
VV: It's only in recent years that what used to be called "slick" writing has appeared in science fiction. Is it a permanent change? For years, until the 1960s, I consciously wrote pulp-style sentences. They have a certain lush poetry in them. In the late 1960s, I began to concentrate on content and even allowed my protagonist to be neurotic, also. However, these current stories don't seem to win the same approval as when I followed the earlier system. Will Future Glitter and The Anarchistic Colossus be reissued as often as Slan and the Null A stories? Time will tell.
JE: Can you say something about the genesis of a story? What comes first?
VV: A number of my recent stories are the result of luncheons I had with film or television producers, directors, or story editors. For example I had lunch with an early story editor of Outer Limits, a television science fiction series. Prior to the luncheon, I had thought of a dramatic opening that might fit into the series. After listening to it, he said, in effect, "If you can work up a satisfactory story to continue from that opening, you've got a sale." Well, I couldn't-in terms of thinking of it as television. But several years later, using that beginning, I wrote the short story, "The Ultra Man," which is part of a collection published in the United States under the title Worlds of A. E. van Vogt. That is typical of my trying to fit in with someone else's format. I should have known. On the two or three occasions that John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding, offered me one of his ideas, he was rewarded by getting the story back three or four years later. Similarly, I started a story for each producer who talked to me. Some of these unfinished items sit in boxes in the garage under my house. I recently finished several of these, and they are included in Pendulum, the new collection from DAW. Such a lengthy gestation time has been extremely damaging to my television and film career. Since my 1969 new theory of rapid writing, I am better-meaning faster. For example, George Hay in England has twice gotten stories from me for original anthologies. What he offers is a theme.
JE: To what extent do you know what you're going to write before you put it down on paper?
VV: If the question means, do I have a complete outline before I start writing, the answer is "no." It used to take me two years to write a science fiction novel. During that time, though, I also worked on shorter-length fiction. But the job of reasoning out, and writing, a 70,000 word novel was done piecemeal. In 1969, as I mentioned, I thought of a faster method. After having any kind of thought as to what the story was about, I would write that out first. It was obvious, then, that what I had written would require specific developments. So I wrote those. Sometimes, what I wrote in this piecemeal fashion was only three lines, but it could be as much as three pages. As soon as I had four or five such bits, they logically required either earlier or later developments, which I wrote. Presently, I had a 100 pages or so, usually including parts of the beginning, middle, and ending. So with that much completed, I could begin at the beginning and work out the missing sections. By this means, I discovered I could work on several novels at the same time.
JE: Do you do much rewriting in the course of a book?
VV: My principal rewriting has always been going back and adding ideas that are needed to lead up to story situations that evolved later in the story. I used to, when I had my first draft finished, start at the beginning and change words in order to add certain sounds, according to a theory I had that emotion could be evoked subliminally. (Before I ever heard that word; I called it "ritual emotion.") For some scenes, this meant adding words with the d and t set of sounds as long as that particular situation continued. For example, consider this battle scene: "The line of fire crept along the length of the enemy battleship. The effect was beyond Clane's anticipation. The flame licked high and bright. The night came alive with the coruscating fury of that immense fire. The dark land below sparkled with reflected glare." In this passage, I substituted words with the "k" sound in them wherever I could find one with a similar meaning to the one being replaced. I felt this created a subliminal emotional effect on the reader suitable for battle scenes. Now, if you argue that there could be a lot more "k" sounds inserted in such a paragraph, my answer would be that I didn't want a poetic effect, or even simple alliteration, that would be obvious. I've done that, but for different reasons. After my writing style came in for extensive criticism, I thought, "Well, maybe I'm wrong." These days, instead, I merely aim in the general direction of such techniques. Principally, I now concentrate on greater story content.
JE: Is seclusion a necessary requirement in order to write?
VV: What I need is not to have my train of thought interrupted too often. Within that frame, I can do minor chores around the house, go to the store, read the newspaper ten minutes at a time, answer the phone (if it doesn't ring too often). And so I get through my work day, which often lasts from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
JE: Do you write with some ideal audience in mind? VV: Obviously, if Astounding hadn't existed in 1938, I wouldn't have written a story for it. But granting that publications are available, and open to freelance submissions, it wasn't the readership I thought about. I was the audience. As a science fiction audience, I reflect intellectuality and a degree of Victorian morality, even though I know the facts of life perhaps better than most, since I conducted psychotherapy experiments from 1951 to 1962, using Dianetic techniques, on nearly 2,000 people.
JE: How important does impact figure in your concerns?
VV: If there is an answer to that question, I suppose it is that I write scared. My feeling is that if I use one sentence too many, I will lose my reader. What this means, at times, is that I won't use an entire sentence, but only a portion of one. Some thoughts, or progressions, are so tiny they should have only one word devoted to them. The consequent impact on the reader is of story action that never stops.
JE: Are there books you've written that you wish, in retrospect, were never published?
VV: No. I have no regrets on any of my stories. Science fiction is a form of genre writing. When I discovered that I had a keen interest in science fiction genre, I didn't say, "Damn it, why can't I be interested in a type of writing that will win me artistic respect?" Perhaps, I started with too small an ego. I learned how to do something in a craftsmanlike way. That something was science fiction, which provided feedback and an intellectual growth that was not anticipated by the early practitioners. Automatically, I grew as a person. I didn't have to fight my way up. I floated up. According to my critics, my best stories were written earty in my career. My own feeling is that some of my recent books are better. But it's not a problem with me. I'm like the individual who did crossword puzzles in his early days instead of spending the time on something "useful." And then later it turned out (a recently discovered truth) that doing crossword puzzles is one of the ways to a high IQ. Some of my early stories, in spite of all my scheming, have old-fashioned ideas in them. But I know what the scheme was. The story is not responsible for my bad guess as to what the world might be like in the 1970s. Of the three principal genre-type writings-mystery, western and science fiction-science fiction is the only one that can have bad guesses in it. By the way I wrote, requiring the reader to fill in the hang-ups in my sentences, I largely avoided bad predictions.
JE: Do you think that your writing has steadily improved over the years?
VV: About ten years ago, a supervising editor at Doubleday read two of my books, The Weapon Shops of Isher and The Weapon Makers, with an eye to some kind of special book cIub publication. He turned them down on the grounds-so I was told-that I had improved greatly in my writing style since turning out those novels. It's interesting to note that the present editor of Pocket Books, when inquiring what of my work was contractually available for paperback publication, asked first about those two novels. Both volumes have since been published by Doubleday and, according to a recent report, are doing extremely well. In terms of writing style, I must put myself on the fence. As a young writer, I was an organized craftsman. I also had some odd beliefs. For example, I considered the 800-word scene a "rhythm" in the story. I also believed that the use of certain letters in excess of the normal, but short of poetic effect, constituted a "rhythm." In executing the twists of Ianguage required by my methods did I offend English majors of the 1950s and 1960s, or did I actually abuse the English language? I'm currently in the process of learning 200 languages. When I've mastered them all, I shall be a better judge of such matters.
JE: Does your emotional state affect your ability to write?
VV: I suppose I'm a "square." I don't have emotional states, at least not for long. The squares of this world are the essentially stable people. The emotional types are often more stimulating as individuals. The reasons-by one of my systematic thoughts-is that they somehow had a direct contact opened for them with the subconscious mind. I achieve the creative benefits derived from such contact, with one or more of the dozen thought systems with which I operate. This is not to suggest that I don't sometimes detect stirrings of such emotions as anger, or pleasure, or fear. I do.
JE: Do you consciously file away ideas for future stories?
VV: During the period, 1950-1962, when I was most involved in the study of human behavior, I wrote bits of various stories. How good were those bits? There were portions of all three Silkie novelettes (which I eventually organized into a novel). There was the beginning of The Battle of Forever, my favorite far-out novel. There were portions of The Darkness of Diamondia, Future Glitter, Children of Tomorrow, and The Secret Galactics. There were also parts of the three novels on which I've recently been working. And there were portions of several dozen short stories, some of which were finally finished and published in The Book of van Vogt, as well as several parts of short stories which appear in The Worlds of A. E. van Vogt. I cannot say, however, that these bits and pieces were on "file." I spent many hours searching through boxes for sheets of paper that had on them scrawled versions of various stories. My guess is that there are at least another ten novels in similar form, not to mention twenty to thirty short stories which I haven't located.
JE: You're extremely good at giving your characters interesting names.Do you follow any set rules?
VV: I discussed the origin of the name, "Gosseyn," for example, in the introduction to The World of Null-A. I first saw that name, spelled exactly that way, in an English book about the Middle East. "Gosseyn" was a Middle East chieftain who lived approgimately 2,000 years ago. It seemed to be an unusual English-sounding name. At the time, I made no attempt to pronounce it. Much later, my agent, Forrest Ackerman, pointed ont that it could be pronounced "Go-Sane," which, of course, is what Null A is about. In Slan, my main character has a fairly unusual English name: "John Thomas Cross." I called him "Jommy" at age nine, to get the "boy" effect (even though as a "Slan," he was much above any nine-year-old human). I called him "Jommy Cross" at age fifteen, when mentally he was as developed as a grown man (I hoped to retain a youthful flavor). As an adult "Slan," I called him "Cross," using only his last name. How do you depict someone smarter than a human being? You can use techniques like that.
JE: What degree of reality do your characters have for you after you've finished writing about them?
VV: That's a touchy subject with me. In my opinion, there's a false belief extant that, in some novels, science-fictional or mainstream, there's such a thing as "good" characterization. The author-it's felt by some people-reaches down into the inner being of human beings, and triumphantly pulls out, and shows us, a true-to-life character. This is absolutely impossible in our day and age. We're presently in a middle period of history. Given our elementary knowledge of human psychology, we simply do not have the insights to accomplish that task. In truth, everyone is, or was, an automatic product of un-scientific conditioning and of the casual accidents that occur in an un-knowing environment. In my novel, The Man With a Thousand Names, for example, I describe a super-rich man's son who takes full advantage of his father's great wealth. He is basically a neurotic individual and, I suppose, I do a rather skillful job of describing his character. If that's what you mean by characterization, then I've probably created one of my best characters. From my perspective, though, the depiction of someone else's neurosis is not meaningful, even if it may prove interesting to other "automatics." My characters are often people in search of their identity. I believe that's the best anyone can do in our period of history. The protagonist is constantly in search of himself. In The World of Null-A, the search arrives at a meaningful-or meaningless point-when a live "Gosseyn" looks down at a dead "Gosseyn." The last line of the novel reads: "The face was his own."
JE: To what extent does your writing reflect your own search for identity?
VV: I early observed that identity was not an identifiable condition. Instead, I had certain situations wherein I, whoever I was, became disturbed. My therapeutic purposes were aimed at eradicating those things that disturbed me, and I have essentially accomplished that purpose.
JE: How much value do you place on what the critics think of your work?
VV: Apparently, we shall have critics with us from now until the far future. Let me say, to begin with, I don't mind fan critics at all. I really don't care if a fan likes or dislikes my work, so long as he has only a limited fan magazine market to peddle his ideas-in fact, I enjoy reading what he has to say. However, when it comes to criticism in the national circulation magazines, alas, I have lived long enough to know that a hostile reviewer can do great damage to an author; and great damage has been done to me. There are essentially two kinds of critics: one represents a "new wave," and he has a yen to let the readership know that anything written prior to the new thought lacks true reality-which is what he represents. Most realities in fiction evolve through an up curve and then a down curve in about ten years, after which, unless the author can make a shift, the new "new wave" flows over him. The other type of critic is a person, often resident in New York, who can't seem to make a living at writing science fiction; but he knows everybody, and they want to do something for him. As is often the case, he is given the critic's column to write. If he would be calm, and accept the manna from heaven for what it is, fine!, but no, he's angry inside-at what, who knows? He quickly forgets that he's a charity case and begins to act like God Almighty. Can anything be done for him? Will this system ever change? No! Editors in New York are really amazingly strong people. Every day they have to resist buying a story from someone who needs the money in order to eat that day. The wonder is that any stories are bought from out-of-towners. But the editor's soft heart is hardened by one simple reality: the publisher's greed does not allow more than an occasional charitable sale to take place. For this reason-the simple truth of capitalist competition-writers everywhere in the country can compete fair and square. But the critics are principally residents in or near New York. Let me say that, when there is an exception (which occasionally does happen), he doesn't last long, because who wants to read all those books month after month? And as a second reason, he sends in a column or two from the hinterland so engagingly written, that the publisher happens to read it before the editor can hide it, so it somehow gets in.
JE: How do you see your image as it currently manifests itself?
VV: I really believe there's room for everybody. I probably have as many readers as I ever had. Some writers-like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov-expanded into reader groups that have shown no inclination to become involved in the science fiction field as such. They have added to their reading, on the one hand, works by scientists-like Isaac Asimov-who write science ficrion, and on the other, works by poets-like Ray ,Bradbury-who also write science fiction. Some new wave writers have expressed detestation of Perry Rhodan. It's like attacking Tom Swift and His Electric Car. There's no competition for the new wave. If Perry Rhodan disappeared, not a single reader would be available to the new wave. Everybody has his own place and his own audience. My stories show a different type of creativity than any of those persons I've named. It so happens that right now the market for what I do isn't in the millions for each new book of mine. Since my science fiction is consciousness-expanding, I expect that one of these days readers will appreciate in larger numbers what I do. Then I, also, shall become rich like Bradbury and Asimov. Until then, things are middling good. I have no complaints.
JE: If you were asked to assess your work, how would you do so?
VV: Over the years, here in the United States, three groups of science fiction writers have enjoyed greater popularity than I. The leading writers of Group One are Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, all of whom have known scientific training. I believe that there is a growing audience which, in reading science fiction, requires the assurance that what they read is a genuine extrapolation from true science. The rapid rise of Jerry Pournelle, who has several Ph.Ds., is a further evidence of the importance of a scientific background for this particular audience. Group Two is headed by Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. These are all persons who write wonderfully condensed fictional sentences-meaning, their use of the English language is unusually pure and beautiful. All of these writers accept human nature at its present level without argument, and seem to believe that is all there is, ever. And so the vast audience of television and film is within the reach of what they write about. And they have penetrated the fabulous women's market. I suspect that Ellison will eventually have to remove the four-letter words from future revisions of his works, because pornographic language always runs in cycles. I seem to detect that interest in the current cycle is waning. Group Three is headed by Robert Silverberg. He has an extreme ability for finding touching themes, as in Dying Inside. His are not sentimental stories. They have genuine feeling in them. There are also a few special individuals, like Frank Herbert, of whose education I know nothing. And then there is my own favorite, R. A. Lafferty. I don't know what his audience is. What I have isn't merely extrapolation of science. I've devised actual practial sub-branches of ecnomics, psychology, education, physical fitness, politics, libertarianism, criminology, etc. None of this will displace, or transcend, the science fiction poets, the scientists-writers, ot the marvelously sensitive women writers who have entered the science fiction wtiting field. But I believe what I have done will eventually exert an influence on modern thought.
JE: Is science fiction writing as challenging today as it was when you began your career?
VV: The science fiction field is in a confused state. The number of paperback science fiction books on the newsstands is awesome. However, we have to remember that in the United States thete are over 200 million people, and most of them are over nine years old-which is the age that science fiction reading begins for many. Until evidence of disaster emerges I shall merely continue about my business of writing whatever interests me. At present, most of that writing is science fiction. I still do it as a craftsman. And so there's no special challenge for me that's different from the past. I know my business.
JE: Finally, do you still enjoy reading science fiction? If so, whose work do you admire?
VV: I read the first few paragraphs of every story in all the science fiction magazines published in English. If those paragraphs have story energy in them, I may read on. And if that holds me, then I will read the story. I also receive all the Doubleday book club selections. With them, I also read the first few paragraphs. In addition, I buy several paperbacks a month, and get others free, and do the same with them. My general impression: there's less action in stories these days, but some very ingenious ideas. Of the non-action writers, R. A. Lafferty writes (for me) the best fictional sentences, Robert Silverberg the best true emotion, Harlan Ellison the most condensed fictional sentences, Larry Niven the best hardcore science fiction, Randall Garrett the best pastiche writing, and Jerry Pournelle the farthest in the shortest time. Of the great ladies, C. J. Cherryh, Vonda McIntyre, Katherine Kurtz, Marion Ziramer Bradley, Alice Sheldon (Jaraes Tiptree, Jr.), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Tanith Lee have all gone up into those rarefied heights that only women can attain. But the fact that I have to list that many names, and omit several dozen that have my respect-for example, John Brunner and Brian Aldiss-tells me that the field has changed drastically for the better.