Wednesday 29 September 2010

EC Tubb: Interview Part 1

(Part one)

E.C. Tubb was Britain’s most prolific and highly-rated
Science Fiction author of the 1950’s, a writer who dominated the SF
magazine scene in the 1960’s, and whose linked Space Operas established
new generations of fans throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.... until now,
it’s the 2000’s, ‘EARL DUMAREST’ has finally came home
to Earth – leaving Tubb with new projects to write...!
Andrew Darlington meets the Man who invented worlds

“Reading can be a dangerous pursuit, Sam. Men have
ideas, and they write them down so that other men can
absorb them. Some men even act upon them.
Revolutions have been caused that way…”
(“The Captain’s Dog” in ‘Nebula no.35’, October 1958)

Supposedly, health problems mean that E.C. Tubb has now finally and absolutely retired from writing. This event-horizon was supposedly crossed during the early months of 2003. As if. It’s difficult to imagine any circumstances capable of conspiring to staunch the irrepressible flood of this unique fictioneer’s word-flow. Ever. But even if this date is to be considered some kind of last hurrah, it is significant in that it provides a precise punctuation to a half-century of stories. Five decades of fabulous tales unequalled in their compulsively accessible readability.

Born in London, on Wednesday 15th October 1919, Edwin Charles Tubb can be amazing. He not so much hit the ground running, as impacted the fictional space-time continuum at a striding lope the speed of light, and just kept accelerating. Finding his feet in the indiscriminating ‘Mushroom Jungle’ of the post-war ‘Pocket Book’ and Pulp magazine proliferations, a volatile and devious market, an incandescent, grubby, intermittent and ever-shifting phenomenon, his writing was always far less formulaic than it needed to be to achieve such a readership. And he rapidly outgrew its decline – riding, and occasionally influencing the changes, to dominate the late 1950’s and early 1960’s generation of Science Fiction magazines, ‘New Worlds’, ‘Science Fantasy’, and ‘Nebula’, while editing eighteen months of ‘Authentic SF’ himself, black text punched out on cheap white paper between garishly alluring covers. Yet each issue – to its readers, unleashing new Tubb starburst configurations of future imperfects, changing voices and personalities mutating into golden spirals of sweeping comet trails, flickering implosions illuminating dark worlds, the black void remaining fixed but the planetary action never stops, aggressively paced, tense, expansive, ecstatic, yearning, and poignant.

Graduating into novels in the 1970’s, and beyond. Space Operatics set in constellations of bewildering brightness. Old-School lack of pretensions. But he’s never less than a natural story-teller. And each phase of this apparently chaotic career across those convulsive decades is also one of a seamless and immaculately articulated progression. So many visions. So many sensations. Yet somehow sustained with a single coherence.

Now – here, seeking explanations, invited to investigate his stories as brain-teasers to be solved, he eloquently sets out the ground-rules of his technique. No secrets. No guile. Some self-deprecation. The technology is limited to a battered typewriter and a supply of cigarettes, the discipline extreme – with little to no revision-time, and a two-fisted action-methodology that could scarcely seem more pellucid. Plots constructed by genre mix ‘n’ match, but put through their paces like cosmic dancers. It’s tempting to assume that – through closer scrutiny, you can deduce the operative principles on which Tubb’s stories work, given time. But for all their apparent clarity, the more you analyse, the more they yield something deeply elusive. There in black and white, yet so mysterious a process.

You can explain it so far. The routine operation of ideas, the predictable behaviour of narrative. But no further. None of this can ever begin to define or traduce the lure of his words. Or the sureness of touch he brings to everything he creates. And it’s difficult to think of another writer of his generation responsible for so many astonishing new experiences for the reader’s eye, or one who is capable of evoking such a range of reactions. Cleverness or intelligence, artifice or style doesn’t come close.

Going back to the beginnings of your career – in the early 1950’s, there were two elements influencing novice genre voices. Firstly, emerging as a new writer, there was a ready market for people like you to sell to… but second, they were low-prestige low-paid publications. They were indeed. They didn’t pay. I was lucky when I came into writing because it was a time when – shall we say, those who could write, could sell. Because there was suddenly a tremendous demand for ‘Pocket Books’. This probably came about because it followed the period of paper shortage during the war. So first, there was the lack – combined with an affection for this stuff. Then publishers saw a chance, and started new launches. Now, there was I – without attainments or achievements of any kind, I had nothing to sell the public. I was a lorry driver, then I became a shop manager. No – I didn’t become a ‘shop manager’, but I worked in a shop. Then I sold this story. I wrote my first short story in 1950. It was published in 1951. That was for ‘New Worlds’ (“No Short Cuts”, in issue no.10, Summer 1951). And that changed my life. I suppose I’d written about thirteen stories before I sold that one. I was writing for a hobby. Then I found that I could sell. I won’t go into the economics of it because by today’s standards it sounds pathetic. Ted Carnell bought the story, and alright, this isn’t saying very much, he was starving for material, and everything was – shall we say? on a low level of acceptance. I think I got about £7 for it, something like that. But don’t forget – that was a week’s wages! So it wasn’t to be sneered at. I bought my oldest daughter a tricycle out of it. But that wasn’t the most important thing. I’d found something. I suppose it was the ego-boost of being accepted, that I’d actually been taken, actually been printed. And what I’d done once I could do again… although it didn’t quite work out like that immediately. I began to sell Ted a few things. And then, other shops opened up. The ‘Pocket Book’ market blew up. Longer stories. More money. I’m not saying those early stories are bad, but there were few other genres of publishing that would have taken them. Most other markets were – y’know, ‘literary’…

It’s a confusing period to research, because writers were working under numerous pseudonyms, complicated by crooked contracts through many devious over-night publishers. Tubb’s first novel was ‘Saturn Patrol’ – published under the alias ‘King Lang’, it was followed by ‘Planetfall’ as by ‘Gill Hunt’ (both 1951). Yes, you did turn them out fast. Because, like everything else – in a very miniscule way, you’ve got the reputation. It’s like the films, you know. ‘Cos your name’s there, they want you. So I branched out. ‘Scion Books’, and after that ‘Milestone’. And I used to churn them out. Basically, they were valueless. They were just something to get down on paper, it didn’t really matter what you put down – I was going to say ‘what kind of crap you put down,’ but that’s a little bit too strong perhaps? But you did have that attitude that it didn’t matter. That it was quite transient. It would never last. I suppose a journalist on a newspaper must feel like this – the story of the day, you know? Tomorrow it’s fish ‘n’ chip paper, it’s never going to last. So it’s a shock to go to today’s ‘Pulp Conventions’ and find all of these old things there, so highly priced, so highly valued. Well, not exactly a shock because by then, of course, I was aware that the whole ‘Collector’s items’ thing was going on. But they were great fun to write – those pocketbooks, because your critical faculty was very low. You didn’t worry about what you were doing. Nobody else worried about what you were doing. They were taken. So you just take the old cork out of the subconscious and it flows. But it was speed that was essential then, because – well, you weren’t earning enough, you had to earn more than you were making normally, more than you could earn by driving a truck or whatever, otherwise there was no point in doing it. It wasn’t greed. And I’ve said it before – there’s no reason why I shouldn’t mention Dave Griffiths because he’s well known. He was the reader for the ‘Curtis Warren’ imprint. And he came into the pub where we were. ‘Don’t worry about it. Just write it. I’ll submit it as one of mine. They’re bound to take everything I write. And you’ll get your money – £27 10s’. So I did it. I did one, he took it, and it got accepted, and I got paid. Didn’t get paid for the next two, mind. Sucker. So – I learned, I learned. Oddly enough, some years later when I was the editor of ‘Authentic SF’ I received a story from – guess who? David Griffiths. Which I read, and sent back with a note saying ‘I enjoyed your story and I would love to take it, but first could you please settle the attached invoice for £54 which you owe me?’ And there was another off-shoot of that because around that same time Ken Bulmer apparently went to a local typewriter shop and the chap was saying ‘we’ve just had a fine machine come in, sir, used to belong to an author like yourself – chap called Dave Griffiths’. Poor Dave. The secret, I suppose, is to be careful who you’re dealing with, but anyway, that was that.

‘Shit has its own integrity’ says Gore Vidal. Meaning that even low-profile genre-fiction must have a degree of commitment. Just because a writer writes between formula-restrictions doesn’t mean he doesn’t also believe entirely in his own characters and stories. At least on one level. And Tubb’s very prolific production tends to obscure the fact that some of the material he produced at this time was also very good – like “Kalgan the Golden” which wasn’t even published under his own name (it was published in the ‘Vargo Statten British Space Fiction Magazine’ August 1955 as by ‘George Holt’). One of the best things I did – when I say good, the story was called “Sword of Tormain”. Now, I didn’t think this was any good at the timel, so I sent it off to the American ‘Planet Stories’ under the name ‘Eric Storm’. Stupid. ‘Cos they bought it. So I got no credit for it, no nothing. There it is – “Sword of Tormain”, not under my own name, but by ‘Eric Storm’ (‘Planet Stories’ March 1954). And – I didn’t really sell enough in America. I don’t know if I blame the agent for that, or blame me. You just wanted the money, and you wanted it quick. You couldn’t mess around. You couldn’t wait. To send stuff out to the States was heavy on postage, and it took a long time, especially thick manuscripts. I remember Bryan Berry (1930 – 1955, author of ‘The Immortals’) saying to me that he had done a couple of good things, and I said ‘what did you do?’ ‘I air-mailed them to the States.’ And I said ‘air-mailed?’ – I mean, it was expensive in those days. He said ‘well, if it’s something good I think it’s worth it!’ I don’t know if he sold them or not, he didn’t live long enough to make his mark. And – like the rest of us, he got ripped off. Another way the ‘Pocket Books’ worked was – you signed up, they took it all, and then they sold it to the States for ten times what they’d paid for it. And when he protested about this they said ‘look, I’ll tell you what we’ll do about this, we’ll be fair, we’ll give you a contract for two more novels on the old terms! – another two!’ And he got a bit disenchanted with it. It’s a shame. But that was the way it went.

Of course, writers were ripped off. But no-one was making huge profits from it, all the magazines and publishing imprints were low-budget shoestring operations one step away from bankruptcy. Certainly. And Alistair Patterson – who was also running around at the time, he was a helpful man to me. He was the editor of ‘Scion’, a sort-of old-time editor. He’d take you out and buy you a drink. Get you three parts cut and say ‘I’ll give you something. I’ll give you a commission, Ted. I want a 21,000-word three-part serial for whatever it was – the ‘Vargo Statten (British Space Fiction) Magazine’ . Which turned out to be “Ultimate Conflict”. (I jog his memory) No “Inevitable Conflict” (from the Jan 1954 issue). Things like that, you know. So I liked the man. I think he eventually got the chop and he was scraping the barrel one way or another, and oddly enough in a reverse kind of way, I did to him what Dave Griffiths had done to me. I didn’t rob him, don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t rob him. But he knew I was selling to – not the ‘Badger Books’ people, I forget the name, the title – Phil (Harbottle, SF archivist) would know. ‘Spencer’, that was it! they did my ‘Supernatural Stories’ in one bundle like that (issue no.9, published April 1957, is entirely made up of Tubb stories under six different aliases – Edward Richards, John Mason, Richard D. Ennis, L.C. Powers, Andrew Sutton, and Raymond L. Burton!). So old Patterson gave me his Detective manuscript and said ‘can you put this in for me?’ He was giving me something to sell to them. So I said ‘yeah, I’ll do it under the ‘Charles Grey’ house-alias, it’ll see you through.’ So I delivered it for him, they accepted it, but soon he was complaining ‘cos they took their time paying. Alistair couldn’t wait. I said to him ‘look, I haven’t received the cash myself yet.’ ‘Well, why can’t you give me an advance?’ ‘I haven’t got the money! We’re all a bit strapped around here.’ ‘Well, who’s publishing it?’ I made the mistake of telling him. ‘Spencer’ – I said, ‘they’ve got it’. So he goes down to ‘Spencer’ and demands ‘can you pay me for my novel?’ – which, as you recall, had been submitted by me, their author, under my alias. I have a feeling that’s why they didn’t take any more from me after that. He got paid though. That was Alistair, a nice person, a funny man, but he was fun.
There was an over-lap of genres, especially in those ‘Pulp’ days of the ‘Pocket Books’. His story “Spawn of Jupiter” in ‘Visions of Tomorrow’ (no.11 August 1970) starts off in a near-Western style. The Prospector coming into the saloon. Just that the setting happens to be on the moons of Jupiter. Ah, that’s the old saloon thing though, isn’t it? That’s the classic ‘tavern’. Obviously it couldn’t have been a Western, not with a title like “Spawn of Jupiter”. But it could have been Western-orientated. They all are. That’s what I was talking about earlier. When I had to write an additional sequence into the beginning of the short novel ‘City Of No Return’ to bring it up to the required word-length, I inserted a ‘tavern’ scene, it really had nothing to do with the novel at all. It merely introduced the characters, brought two people together. It’s one of the standards to me, of any novel – or any Western. You get a group of people together – in an environment where anything can happen. It’s a sort of repetitious thing you can use. I’ll have to read “Spawn of Jupiter” again, I think I’ve got a copy somewhere. After that… er, what happened after that?

Then the ‘Pocket-Book’ market imploded, and you became editor of the ‘Authentic SF’ magazine (from issue no.66, 15th February 1956). Yes, I churned them out, until the dreadful year 1954. Where the whole thing blew up, because of – Stephen Francis wasn’t it? They had this obscenity case, and the purveyors – the booksellers, were so scared about being swept up in the net they just wouldn’t touch any of it. ‘Pocket Books? – don’t want that, don’t want that!’ ‘Yes, but this is Science Fiction, this is Boxing, this is a Western’. ‘No, don’t want any of it, don’t want to know, they could have something nasty in there…’ And the whole thing went down. This wasn’t nice for me. I’d just got the house. So I had to get my old job back. And start working, and writing. And I’d write anything for anyone at that time. It was about that time that I did that Foreign Legion book. Then, it must have been about that time – ‘Authentic SF’ came along. Of course – with Bert Campbell initially running the thing, it was a little bit different to the rest. I mean, at least he had an idea what he wanted to do. But he was, at the same time, a realist. And honest enough to admit ‘I realise I’m paying you pennies’. And that was it. So I did a couple of things for him.

One of the things that characterised your period as editor of ‘Authentic SF’ was that many of the stories included were your own, under a variety of assumed guise. You didn’t always have a great deal of choice of material when I was doing ‘Authentic SF’. If people were good they were sending to the States. If they weren’t any good, you didn’t want to publish them. And that’s why quite often in ‘Authentic’ – it wasn’t big-headedness or anything, deadlines come and you’ve got to fill out, there’s nothing good come in, so I’ll write something myself, or I’ll put in one of mine. That’s why there were so many nom de plumes spread around in those issues. But it wasn’t because of greed or anything like that. We were offering very low money, and one of the things the publishers kept going on at me was ‘we need American authors, can’t you get some American authors?’ So I said ‘do you realise what you are paying these people?’ I forget. I could tell you, but I’d have to dig out the information. It’s gone clear out of my mind.

You managed to get Van Vogt into the mgazine. Yes – I got Horace Gold and I got Van Vogt and a few people like that. I think Van Vogt came to me through (Forrest J) Ackerman (SF archivist, super-fan, and ‘Authentic’s American correspondent). But I contacted Gold direct. Because he published some of my stuff. So he said – in a sense, ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’. I said ‘I can’t give you much’. He said ‘doesn’t matter, it gets the name in print, I’m getting what I want to get’. So I ran several of Gold’s. And I went to the publisher and I said ‘there you are, I’ve got you some top-line American authors in the magazine’. And nobody knew who the hell they were! The ‘Authentic SF’ readership obviously wasn’t the ‘Astounding’ readership. So that was that.

‘Authentic SF’ was unusual for the time in that it also published a number of female writers. No, there was not a great deal of women. A great deal of ‘Alice Beecham’ was me. That was one ‘woman’. I don’t know if there were any others. There may have been a couple, I’m not sure if Hilary Bailey was one? but I wouldn’t know them, you see? All I went by was the names on the manuscripts. There was Joy Goodwin, I’m not sure if she was in there – or was that ‘Nebula’? There weren’t very many authoresses about. There weren’t many authors about. We were all doppelgangers of each other.

Yet one of the fine writers you helped discover was Barrington J Bayley. I don’t know if I ‘discovered’ Barrington J Bayley.

He was certainly frequently published in ‘Authentic SF’ – although he may have started in ‘Vargo Statten’. Yes, I’m trying to think who… he was one of Mike Moorcock’s friends. That’s right. He was one of that group. I published him, of course. You did, didn’t you? – he was a mate, so you put him in if you could. Not that they were any worse than anyone else. It was an interesting time, because you were young, you had the energy – and you had no critical faculty at all!

You frequently appeared in the very fine ‘Nebula’ magazine. Did you ever meet its editor, Peter Hamilton? Peter Hamilton… and ‘Nebula’. We have crossed each other’s paths. But I can’t visualise him. I not sure if we ever met. Yes we did. No – I’m thinking of Philip Harbottle now, when he was doing ‘Visions of Tomorrow’. So no – I don’t know if I ever met Peter Hamilton. I don’t know if he ever came down (from Scotland). He may have done. But he was a great source of… a lovely market for me. I used to like the stories in ‘Nebula’. I thought ‘Nebula’ was a very good mag actually. There was some very good stuff in it. And he seemed to like what I was doing. So we got on quite well. But it’s odd. Now people say we were doing it wrong. Ken Bulmer says we did it wrong. And I tend to agree with Ken, because he was saying we fell into a trap. We got into a trap where we had to write for the money, and because we had to have that money we had to write for the available markets. If you could do it again – you’d start writing slightly better, take a little bit longer over it, send it to America, get your name known over in the States, then we could do an Asimov, or a Pohl, or a Van Vogt. Then you think – well, yes, but could we have done that? Could we have afforded the time? And the answer is – of course, no. We couldn’t. The mortgage needed to be paid. And it needed to be paid now… not maybe, not in a year’s time. So it was really difficult.

The Martian story-cycle which became your well-received novel ‘Alien Dust’ (Boardman, 1955) came originally from stories featured in ‘New Worlds’. They were all put together under the title ‘Alien Dust’, yes. Not all of them – yes, I think, all of them. That’s right. And then again, one of those stories is the perfect case of me missing the boat entirely. It’s one of those – I won’t say ‘peevish’ things, because it’s nobody’s fault, it just happened. I wrote a story called “Precedent” about a stowaway on a ship bound for Mars. And they find him, and they have to throw him out. It was just a story. But I think it was Tom Godwin who wrote a story – “The Cold Equation” (‘Astounding/Analog’ August 1954), where they find the stowaway on the ship, but it’s a she. And they have to throw her out. And I look at that, and I think ‘oh dear’ – and I know I was first, not that it matters because you get overlap anyway, but why didn’t I think of a GIRL? Why did it have to be his bloody son-in-law or his brother-in-law or something, and the moral dilemma is ‘what would the wife say?’ Because logically again, at that time it would never have occurred to me that a woman would do that. It was just one of those things. It was a good story. But he got anthologised and lauded, rightly so. It even got on TV. While poor old “Precedent” just sat there, twitching…


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