The "Double:Bill Symposium" Interview

"Why not, I asked myself, a kind of written [convention] panel discussion, which would group together a number of brief comments or answers to questions.  The participants could mull over their responses at their leisure; the brevity would keep the discussions to the point and impose a minimum of inconvenience on those taking part; and, because none of the participants would know what the others were saying, the arguments would be left to the readers."
— Lloyd Biggle, Jr., The double:bill Symposium

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In the fall of 1963, H. Beam Piper was one of the respondents to a series of questions sent to several dozen science-fiction authors and editors by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., on behalf of the Double:Bill, a fanzine produced by Bill Bowers and Bill Mallardi.  Piper's responses, along with those of several others, were printed in Double-Bill, No. 8, January 1964 (and later re-printed in The double:bill Symposium in 1969).  A transcribed excerpt of Piper's responses is presented below.

1. For what reason or reasons do you write (or edit) Science Fiction in preference to other classes of literature?

H. BEAM PIPER: In my 'teens, which would be in the early '20's, I decided that what I really wanted to do was write; I wasn't quite sure what, but I was going to write something.  About the same time, I became aware of science fiction, such as it was then, mostly H.G. Wells, and fantasy, Bram Stoker, H. Rider Haggard, and then I began reading the newer science (more or less) fiction — Burroughs, Merritt, Ralph Milne Farley, Ray Cummings, et al.  This was the Neolithic, or Hugo Gernsback, Period of science fiction, and by this time I was a real 200-proof fan.

This first enthusiasm waned slightly after while.  I got interested in history and historical fiction, and for some time read little else in the way of fiction, and every historical novel I read started me reading up on the history of the period involved.  I wanted to know just who this guy Richelieu was and why D'Artagnan & Co. had such a down on him.  Then the Prohibition period was in full swing, and I became interested in Chicago gangsters for a while.  All the time, I was scribbling stories, few of which ever got finished, thank God!  And gradually, I found myself returning to my first love, science fiction.

Well, along the line somewhere I bought a second-hand typewriter, and for years I squandered my money on paper, ribbons, and two-way postage on manuscripts, and I sent stuff to everything from the AMERICAN BOY to the AMERICAN MERCURY, and finally, lo and behold, instead of a returned manuscript, I got a check, from ASTOUNDING.  And then I began getting more checks instead of bounces, all for science fiction stories.

So I found that science fiction was easier to write and easier to sell, and it was simply a matter of knowing what I was best at and doing it.  For the last few years, in between science fiction stories, I've been tinkering with a historical novel, and to some extent I am applying science fiction methods to it.  After all, the influence of the invention of gunpowder and the development of the arquebus on the politics and warfare of the Sixteenth Century is just as much a science fiction theme as the influence of the development of the space-ship on Twenty-Sixth Century society.

2. What do you consider the raison d'etre, the chief value of Science Fiction?

H. BEAM PIPER: The same as the raison d'etre of any other form of fiction; the entertainment of the reader.  The term entertainment labels any activity for pleasure rather than necessity.  It covers everything people do because it's fun.  Science fiction entertains the type of reader who enjoys speculation on different hypothetical, philosophical, scientific, sociological, political, military, economic, technological, etc., possibilities.  This type of reader is not inferior nor superior to others, but he is different.

3. What is your appraisal of the relationship of Science Fiction to the "mainstream" of Literature?

H. BEAM PIPER: I deplore this term "mainstream."  It is currently used, in fiction, to label novels, etc., of psychological characterization, and nothing else.  As stated above [#2], difference does not imply superiority or inferiority, but only difference.  However, a certain clique of critics, pretending to intellectual superiority (Orville Prescott will do as a specimen), prefer fiction of this genre and refuse to give works of any other kind serious consideration.  It might be noted that most of this critical clique are themselves non-scientific if not actually anti-scientific in orientation.  It might also be noted that most of the characters delineated in such fiction are immature, semantically disoriented, bewildered, complex-ridden, unhappy and often neurotic if not psychotic.  (I do not claim this as an original discovery: Reginald Bretnor pointed it out ten years ago.)  It might also be noted that "m------------m" writers who experiment with science fiction themes usually butcher them atrociously.

4. Do you believe that participating in fandom, fanzines and conventions would be a benefit or a hinderance to would-be writers?

H. BEAM PIPER: If nothing else, fan-activities gives the would-be writer an opportunity of learning what his potential customers want, and of familiarizing himself with the medium in which he intends to work.  I have heard it argued that fandom tends to make a sort of cult of science fiction, restricted to a narrow circle of the initiated.  This I seriously question.  The people who contribute to fanzines and attend conventions are merely the most articulate of the class enumerated in [#2], and I have never attended a convention at which I did not hear all sorts of opinions, often quite contradictory, vigorously maintained.

5. What source or sources would you recommend to beginning writers as having been, in your experience, the most productive of ideas for Science Fiction stories?

H. BEAM PIPER: Now, I won't attempt to answer this.  Ideas for science fiction stories like ideas for anything else, are where you find them, usually in the most unlikely places.  The only reliable source is a mind which asks itself questions like, "What would happen if—?" or, "Now what would this develop into, in a few centuries?" or, "How could so-and-so happen?"  Anything at all, can trigger such a question, in your mind if not in mine.

6. Do you feel that a beginning Science Fiction writer should concentrate on short stories as opposed to novels — or vice versa?  Why?

[No response from Piper]

7. What suggestions can you offer to the beginning writer concerning the development of "realistic" characters and writing effective dialogue?

H. BEAM PIPER: Know your characters intimately.  Plan them just as carefully as you plan the action of the story, and let them develop in your first draft, and by the time you are ready to start on the final draft know their background, past life, education, experiences, etc., and understand how they will react to any situation.

This, of course, is most important with the means-of-perception character, the "viewpoint" character as the old technique writers called him, through whom the reader experiences the story, because not only what he experiences but his reactions and attitudes will be a part of the narrative.  You don't include the thoughts, as such, of the other characters, but you have to make their overt behavior plausible and consistent.

And don't break means of perception.  Switch it from one character to another in different scenes if you can't get the story across with a single means of perception, but never change means of perception in a single scene or action-sequence.

Name your means of perception character in the first paragraph, if possible, and don't name him thereafter unless someone addresses him by name, or something like that.  You're giving his thoughts along with his experiences and actions.  You don't think of yourself by name; not often, anyhow.

In dialogue, knowing your character, think how he would express himself.  Everybody has individualities of speech; make use of that, but don't overdo it.  (Don't overdo anything, of course.) Dialogue, of course, is people talking; they talk to convey information (or misinformation) to one another.  In a story, dialogue can also be used to convey information to the reader.  This, of course, can be overdone, too.  I recall a movie, The Iron Curtain, I believe, in which two Communist spies in America went into a five minute dialogue about basic Communist doctrine and Soviet policy, a terrible false note, because these were fundamentals to which they both subscribed, and would have no business to discuss with each other.

Just have your characters do and say what you think people of their sort would do and say, under the circumstances.

8. Do you believe that an effective novel requires a message or moral?  Please Comment.

H. BEAM PIPER: Absolutely not.  If kept within decent limits, and not advanced with any Hyde Park soapboxery, a "message" or "moral" won't do any particular harm.  It is not, however, the business of an author of fiction to improve or inspire or educate his reader, or to save the world from facism, communism, racism, capitalism, socialism, deros, or anything else.  As stated above, his main objective is to purvey entertainment of the sort his readership wants.  If he has done this, by writing interestingly about interesting people, human or otherwise, doing interesting things, he has discharged his duty and earned his check.

9. To what extent do you think it possible to detect a writer's viewpoints as to politics, religion or moral problems through examination of his stories?

H. BEAM PIPER: To a very large extent.  The story comes out of the author's mind; it will, inescapably, drag at least some of the author's attitudes out after it.  This will be most evident in authors who are most careful to cling to their means-of-perception; they will be much more likely to endow their means-of-perception character with their own attitudes than to take the trouble to adapt themselves to his.  Considering the one author about whom I am uniquely qualified to speak, I question if any reader of H. Beam Piper will long labor under the misconception that he is a pious Christian, a left-wing liberal, a Gandhian pacifist, or a teetotaler.  Although he really tries to avoid it, there are times when I suspect him of climbing onto a soapbox under the Marble Arch himself.

10. During your formative writings what one author influenced you the most?  What other factors, such as background, education, etc., were important influences?

H. BEAM PIPER: My formative writings go back a long time, and one tends to forget.  I am sure, however, that their name is legion.  In the early days, as soon as I'd discover a new favorite, I'd decide that I was going to write like him.  I was going to write like James Branch Cabell, which would have taken a lot of doing.  Before that, I was going to write like Rafael Sabatini, and like Talbot Munday, and like Rider Haggard, and even, God help us all, like Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I never wanted to write like H.G. Wells; he spent entirely too much of his time on a soapbox.  Eventually I decided to write like H. Beam Piper, only a little better.  I am still trying.

As my stories all have a political and social slant instead of a physical-science slant, I think the one author who influenced me most was Nicco Machiavelli, with H. L. Mencken placing and Karl von Clausewitz showing.

11. What do you consider the greatest weakness of Science Fiction today?

H. BEAM PIPER: Not enough people read it, and there doesn't seem to be much of anything anybody can do about it.  I remember, years ago, Fletcher Pratt was bemoaning this situation and saying that we must enlarge our readership.  I said then that it couldn't be done, and I still think so.  It's like the attempt of Charles VII of France to create a French archery to compete with the English longbowman.  He found he couldn't grab a lot of peasants out of the fields, give them bows, and expect them to stand up to the English, who trained an archer by starting with his grandfather.  We wouldn't have to go back quite that far to make science fiction readers, but the type of inquisitive and speculative mind needed for the enjoyment of what we know as science fiction must be developed rather early, and our present school system seems to be doing little to help.

When Charles VII found that he couldn't train French longbowmen, he settled for training crossbowmen.  They weren't as good on the battlefield, but they were the best he could do.  What I'm afraid of is that the publishers who decide which stories will be bought and which bounced back will buy stuff suited to the mentality of a large mass readership, a readership that will accept as science fiction anything that casually mentions a space-ship or a World Government, without any confusing egg — head stuff about what the planets the space-ship goes to are really like, or what a World Government would have to do.

Then we'd be back where we started, only it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.  Instead of Ol' Space Ranger doubling for Hopalong Cassidy and the cattle-rustlers all in the space-pirate business, we'd have psychological stories with robot psychologists, and Boy meets Girl — or maybe Boy meets Boy, to judge from some of the recent Mainstream stuff — on a space-ship to Mars instead of a Carribbean cruise, and sagas of the ad-agencies, in which thought transmitters take the place of TV.

And the only real science fiction writing left will be in the fanzines.

I am almost sixty now.  It gives me the most inexpressible pleasure to reflect that by the time this has happened, I shall be dead.

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