SF Recollections by Richard Lupoff

The following autobiographical sketch was picked up from AmericaOnline which is presenting stories online for Omni. It's been added to the Timebinder's site with the permission of Richard Lupoff.

One of my earliest recollections is of crouching on the living room rug, peering over my brother's shoulder as he read the Sunday funnies. Of all the features, I most vividly remember Flash Gordon. The splendid men and gorgeous women, all in their form-fitting costumes...the Art Deco cities with their graceful, sweeping vistas and their soaring towers...and of course the beautifully rendered spaceships and Alex Raymond's dazzling imagery of outer space...

But there was something missing. There were those little black marks that I knew were words. They were the words that told the story and they were the words that were being spoken by those splendid people. And Jerry could read them (he was three years older than I) and I could not.

If ever anyone was driven mad by lust, I think I was. Made mad or very close to it by the lust to read. I went on a campaign, demanding ceaselessly to be taught to read. I was told that I would learn when I started school, three years after my brother. I could not wait. I must have driven the rest of the household close to madness, too, until my wonderful Austrian-born grandmother yielded to my pleas and taught me to read.

I recall the event with great vividness. It was a lovely, sunny day, the household was (relatively tranquil), and we sat down after lunch and Grandma simply showed me the letters and told me their sounds and explained that they went together and made words. That was all. By dinner-time I could read.

People have told me that this is impossible, that my memory must be grossly distorted if not outright false. But others have told me that they had the same experience -- a pent-up desire to learn to read, a kindly mentor willing to show them how -- and it is done.

Once I had learned to read, I proceeded to devour every piece of writing I could lay my hands on. But two more overwhelming discoveries lay ahead. At first, those endless books and newspapers and magazines and comics were a given. They were simply there. But one day I realized that they were not simply there: somebody wrote them. And another day I realized that I could write them.

I remember my earliest efforts at creation. I wrote and drew a book called An Adventure. This consisted of simple scenes of a young boy visiting famous sites. The Stach You of Liberty and the White House are two that I remember. The young boy was chubby, had masses of curly dark hair, and wore only a swimming suit.

A while later I was a contestant in a round-robin storytelling contest. Terrified of disgracing myself and causing my team to lose the contest, I won us a bonus point for my chapter about a haunted house. What a surge of adrenaline the judges' announcement provoked -- I've never tried heroin but I can't imagine any chemical more addictive than adrenaline. I was hooked for life.

These events took place in the late 1930s and early '40s -- I was born in 1935 -- and as you'd expect, my strongest subjects in school were literature and composition, followed by history. I did all right in the physical sciences and was a disaster in math.

By 1949 or '50 I was earning pocket money as a stringer for metropolitan newspapers, filing stories on prep school sports. There I was, all of 14 years old, on the sports pages of the New York Times and Herald-Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bulletin. More intoxication. My stories tended to be one paragraph -- sometimes one sentence -- in length, except for the longer, bylined pieces in the local weekly, the Bordentown, New Jersey, Register. But in the big dailies, my copy ran cheek-by-jowl with the works of Stanley Woodward and Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, the greatest sports writers of their generation.

In college I wrote for the Coral Gables, Florida, Times, and for the 6:00 o'clock news five days a week at WIOD, Miami, owned by the Wonderful Isle of Dreams Broadcasting Company. It was pretty heady stuff for a 19- or 20-year-old to finish his last class of the day, head down to the studio, get on the phone and talk to judges and mayors and police chiefs. I used to finish my work by 5:55, turn in my copy to Gene Struhl, the news director, then get in my car and listen to my stuff as I drove home for dinner. Once in a while I'd stay at the station to keep tabs on a late-breaking story, and sneak into the studio with update copy while either Struhl or one of our staff announcers was on the air. It was like living in a movie.

We're talking about the Eisenhower Era now, and in those Cold War days part of every young man's life (or nearly everyone's) was a tour in uniform. I have no military horror stories to tell. The Korean War was over, we weren't fighting yet in Viet Nam, and I spent two fairly comfortable years variously at Fort Benning and Fort Gordon, Georgia, and Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. Hey, I can still sing our nformal class anthem at the Infantry School:

High above the Chattahoochee
Near the Upatois
Stands our dear old alma mater
Benning School for Boys....

But I didn't see myself as a career soldier, and in 1958 I packed my uniform away and started looking for a job as a writer or editor. I think I would have loved working for John Campbell or Anthony Boucher or Horace Gold as an assistant at one of the science fiction magazines of the day, but instead I fell into a job as a technical writer for what was then Sperry Univac.

We tech writers were considered junior executives, suit-and-tie types, and the starting salary was $350 a month. Of course the first thing I did was get married. Fortunately, in 1958 it was possible for a young couple to lead a very pleasant upper-middle-class life on that salary.

In that job I got my first look at a computer. Univac I. It had 1000 *words* of memory, roughly the equivalent of 12K bytes. The storage medium was a mercury delay line, and if you wanted to look at the memory you had to open a door in the side of a garage-sized metal structure and walk inside. It held half a dozen people comfortably.


I worked for Sperry for five years, then for IBM for seven. The last few years of my IBM tour were spent writing and directing movies. It was a good job and IBM was a great employer, but this was just not what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write books. I wrote my first book, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, in 1965, and my first novel, One Million Centuries, in 1967.

Still, I stayed with IBM until 1970, shucking my suit and tie each evening, climbing into sweatshirt and jeans and going to work on a novel or short story. I'd wanted to get out of the big business environment and devote myself to writing for ten years. There was always a reason to defer the move -- generally economic -- but with Pat's support and encouragement I finally made the break.

It's been 25 years since then, frequently precarious ones. Sometimes we've come close to financial disaster, but I have to believe that the decision was right.

My first love in literature was the fantastic. I was a passionate reader of comic books: superheroes, science fiction and horror. I followed the same preferences when I was ready for "real" books. When I was eight, our school librarian spotted me as a reader and tried to guide me to good literature as she saw it. Since her taste ran heavily to nineteenth-century French romantic writers, I was soon up to my elbows in Dumas, Hugo (admittedly, as much a realist as a romantic), and Jules Verne.

Little did Miss Schultz realize, when she handed me a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues, that she was nourishing my taste not for French romantics but for science fiction.

In the same era I picked up a wonderful little Avon paperback horror anthology that contained "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft, "By the Waters of Babylon" by Steven Vincent Benet, and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I'm afraid those are the only stories that I remember from The Avon Ghost Reader, but considering that I read it almost fifty years ago, the impressions that the stories made must have been pretty strong.

Not long after that I read two more anthologies that made an immense impression on me: The Science Fiction Galaxy edited by Groff Conklin and Shot in the Dark edited by Judith Merrill. By the early 1950s I was a fanatical reader of science fiction magazines: Galaxy, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Other Worlds, Thrilling Wonder Stories and a couple of dozen others.

Which brings me back to college, and the army, and my first real job and my marriage. In those early years a favorite outing for Pat and myself began with a sleazy science fiction movie, or better yet a double feature. Maybe, War of the Colossal Beast and House on Haunted Hill. Tickets cost fifty cents. We lived near White Plains, New York, for the first year of our marriage, and after the movies we would walk to Tommy Chen's restaurant for a late dinner topped off with watery chocolate ice cream. Then home to our apartment and our cocker spaniel.

What could be more Eisenhower American?

In 1963 I was working for IBM in the Time/Life Building at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue. Pat and I had long since moved to Manhattan and had a wonderful apartment on East 73rd Street. I had a second job, moonlighting as an editor for Canaveral Press at 63 Fourth Avenue. Working for Canaveral, I found myself acting as Edgar Rice Burroughs' posthumous editor. After assembling a couple of volumes of Burroughs' previously uncollected short stories and preparing several of his unpublished novels for release, I was asked by the owners of the company, Jack Biblo and Jack Tannen, to write a book about him.

That was the genesis of Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, my first book. After five more years of balancing my work for IBM with my literary career, I gave up on the computer industry. My manager in those last days was Fox B. Holden, a onetime pulp writer whose stories had graced the pages of Planet Stories and Imagination in the 1940s and '50s. I think Fox saw me as a surrogate for himself; he'd reached the same fork in the road, years earlier, that I reached in 1970. He felt that he'd taken the wrong path, and he was relieved to see my make the right choice.

I concentrated on science fiction throughout the 1970s. Most of my books were well received, and some of them achieved a degree of commercial success although I never had a major hit. Still, I felt that I was getting somewhere with novels like Sacred Locomotive Flies, Space War Blues, The Triune Man, Sun's End, and Circumpolar!, as well as my one all-out fantasy novel, Sword of the Demon. I also edited a series of anthologies called What If? -- Stories That Should Have Won the Hugo.

But when the Carter inflation of the late 1970s gave way to the Reagan recession of the early '80s, my markets disappeared and financial disaster loomed. I wound up pushing papers in the federal bureaucracy from 1982 to 1985. By the mid-1980s, however, Pat's career as a retail bookseller was thriving, the literary market seemed to be recovering, and I decided to sample the water again, as a novelist.

I had, after all, made a pretty good track record for myself in my first incarnation. My books had been published by several leading companies in the US and abroad, and my stories had been printed in major magazines and anthologies. I'd been nominated many times for Hugo or Nebula awards, although ironically the only time I ever won was as a fan publisher, back in the dawn of time. Theodore Sturgeon had sung my praises to the sky in The New York Times Book Review, and A. E. Van Vogt had compared my impact on the quality of writing in science fiction to that of Ray Bradbury. My works had been translated into French, German, Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.

Really, conditions seemed propitious for a second career in science fiction, and I did get several more novels into print: The Forever City, Countersolar!, Galaxy's End. But two of these were sequels to earlier books; I was having trouble selling anything really new. The lesson that I had to accept was that the field had moved on, leaving me behind. It's painful to say this, but it was nonetheless true.

To a large extent my new books failed to generate the excitement that they once had, among critics, academics, and fans. There were exceptions. The Los Angeles Times Book Review ran a front-page rave of Countersolar! by Orson Scott Card, and I received friendly notices from other critics in The Washington Post and the Bloomsbury Review. But I couldn't get the deals I wanted with the publishers I wanted to sell to, and the more vociferous fans had gone on to new heroes.

And then I received the same piece of advice from three sources whom I respected. These were my wife, Pat, who knew the book business from the retail end...my agent, Henry Morrison, who knew it from the publishing end...and my longtime friend Noreen Shaw, a librarian in the Los Angeles public library system. They all said, "Write a mystery."

This wasn't altogether an alien idea to me. One of my earliest stories, written for a mimeographed newspaper at summer camp, had been a private eye yarn. One of my science fiction novels, The Triune Man, was really as much murder mystery as it was science fiction. And I'd done a fairly successful spy thriller featuring one of my boyhood idols in an (imaginary) "real-life" adventure: Lovecraft's Book.

So I gave it a shot, and wrote The Comic Book Killer, featuring the detective team of insurance investigator Hobart Lindsey and Berkeley police officer Marvia Plum. That was followed by The Classic Car Killer, The Bessie Blue Killer, The Sepia Siren Killer, and (coming in 1995) The Cover Girl Killer.

I've also done some teaching at the University of California and elsewhere, run a weekly talk show on KPFA in Berkeley for many years, and had a few, generally painful, dealings with Hollywood. A brilliant young filmmaker named Jonathan Heap made a superb 30-minute version of my short story 12:01 PM. It was an Oscar nominee in 1990, and was later adapted (very loosely) into a two-hour Fox movie called 12:01.

If you happen to see the two films, you might want to try and spot the only actor who appears in both -- me, as an extra. Possibly the most obscure piece of Hollywood trivia of all time.

The story was also adapted -- actually plagiarized -- into a major theatrical film in 1993. Jonathan Heap and I were outraged and tried very hard to go after the rascals who had robbed us, but alas, the Hollywood establishment closed ranks. We were no Art Buchwald. After half a year of lawyers' conferences and emotional stress, we agreed to put the matter behind us and get on with our lives.

I am frequently asked why I quit science fiction, and when or whether I will ever return to it. The fact is, I didn't quit, I was fired. When I returned to the field after my forced, temporary retirement of the early 1980s, the earlier interest that readers and editors had shown in my work was no longer present. My grand project, a massive work called Born of the Stars, exists as a lengthy, detailed synopsis. Several publishers have considered it, but only one saw fit to offer me a contract. And in that case, the price offered was an affront and the terms and conditions of publication showed the publisher's attitude clearly: I was supplying yard goods. I had my agent return the contract unsigned.

There's another volume to be written in each of my science fiction series. Those would be Time's End and Transtemporal! I've got a wonderful little time-chase novel called Emperor of Yesterday. Those three books, plus Born of the Stars, represent several years' work. All of these books exist as sketches, outlines, synopses, or rough notes...in my file cabinet, on my computer's hard disk, or just in my brain. Sure, I'd be willing to write any or all of them -- if I were offered a decent contract and an adequate price. Otherwise -- pardon the melodramatics, but this happens to be simple truth -- they will go to the grave with me.

I did have many wonderful friends and colleagues in the science fiction field. My first mentor, James Blish, who heard my tale of frustration as an unsuccessful short story writer and offered the obvious (but for some reason not obvious to me) solution: write a novel. The editor who bought my first novel, Larry Shaw, and who remained a friend for life. Other editors I worked with and respected and liked: Don Bensen, David Hartwell, the brilliant David Harris, Robert Silverberg (as talented a teacher and critic as he is a writer), Victoria Schochett, Terry Carr, Maxim Jakubowski, Nick Austin, Marcial Souto. Good friends like Tom Disch and Chip Delany and Sam Moskowitz with whom I once feuded but later came to appreciate. Older writers who were endlessly kind and generous to a beginner: Edward Elmer Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson. I'm afraid of leaving someone out and suffering remorse when it's too late to add to this list.

I have walked with giants.

Incidents emerge from memory like gems from the dust...

One evening in 1962 or so, Don and Elsie Wollheim and Pat and I were walking on a quiet street in Manhattan. Don put his hand on my arm and pointed up at the dark sky. Among the unmoving stars, one brilliant point of light made a brilliant arc, then disappeared.

"Do you know what that is?" Don asked.

"It's a Soviet satellite," I replied. I read my New York Times every morning, and knew what was in orbit as well as the next fellow.

Wollheim shook his head. "That's a spaceship, and there's a spaceman in it."

We have eyes, but do not see.

I remembered standing on a grassy lawn in Florida in 1956, looking at the sky, and hoping that I would live a long life, because someday...maybe as early as the first decade of the 21st Century...humans might walk on the moon. And we did, not in 2009 but in 1969.

And a quarter century later, I met and shook hands with Alan Shepard, who walked on the moon, and played golf there. I walked down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with Shepard, acting tacitly as a bodyguard because the street is dangerous at night. Then I gave him highway directions, and urged him to drive carefully because California was having its first rainstorm of the season and the streets would be slippery.

And I thought, afterwards, that moment was passing strange. Stranger still, and tragic, that a quarter century after we reached the moon, we have lost our vision and our commitment to go out to the wonder-filled universe, and are more intent, instead, on killing each other off with bullets and pollution and overpopulation.

My writing nowadays is devoted mainly to the crime-and-detection field, and I remind you again, I did not quit science fiction, I was fired. I make occasional forays into fantasy, whimsy, or mainstream fiction. I've never done a mainstream novel, but I've tried it in shorter lengths with some success and considerable pleasure. One of these days I may just hitch up my britches, spit on my hands, and give that book a try. But I still write some shorter science fiction pieces. The major one at hand is of course "Black Mist."

And if you will excuse me now, I have work to do -- on my next mystery novel.

Richard A. Lupoff
January, 1995