POSTCARDS FROM HEAVEN
by James Lincoln Warren
I’m a crime fiction writer, but my first love–the literary equivalent of the girl I took to the Senior Prom rather than the woman I married–was science fiction. And I have to say that the two writers that I really learned the most about short stories from were both science fiction writers.
The first was Isaac Asimov. The book was I, Robot. I was in fifth grade, age 10, and the book was a Signet paperback belonging to my big brother. The book is practically a primer in writing the short story, from the pathos of “Robbie”, the first story, to the high adventure of “Runaround” featuring the rough-and-ready field testing team of Powell and Donovan, to the bitter irony and emotional punch of “Liar!”, where we learn that even the cold and acidic Dr. Susan Calvin has a heart to be shattered. Asimov showed me how a story should be structured and how its parts worked together, and most importantly, how to bring the story to a successful end with a killer line.
I was 11 when the movie “Fantastic Voyage” came out. It was based on a short story by Jay L. Bixby and Otto Klement. Asimov was hired to write the tie-in novel. I adored the movie and devoured the book. I wrote my own story involving shrinking, and decided to send it to Isaac Asimov. Little did I know that Asimov rather despised Lilliputian fiction but had taken the job because he was interested in describing human physiology. Years later, Asimov wrote another novel, Fantastic Voyage II, which he took on because he had never been happy with using the other authors’ characters and plot, and which gave him some room to play around with some interesting questions in physics. But I digress.
So I wrote to Dr. Asimov and offered to send him my opus. I wrote the letter in pencil on lined notebook paper, and sent it care of the University of Boston Medical School, because I had read on the back cover that he was Associate Professor of Biochemistry there. (Actually, he hadn’t been associated with University for several years, but they must have forwarded the letter.) I waited for his reply with all the tension and eagerness that I have ever felt waiting to hear from an editor after committing a literary child of mine to the brutal and uncaring world.
Here’s his reply (click on the image to see the whole thing):
I was thrilled.
In college, my favorite author was Fritz Leiber, who raised the bar for me in terms of the sheer style and audacity of his prose, which ranges from as rhythmic and dignified as a state funeral to as impish and saucy as a cabaret coquette. His characters were very real to me, perhaps all the more so because they were in such stark relief against their fantastic circumstances, and also because they are frequently somewhat morally ambiguous. But the main thing about Leiber was that he demonstrated to me that good writing isn’t necessarily using the most direct way to express something, but rather getting the last drop out of every word you use, and what poetic joy there is in reading really fine prose. Really good prose, like poetry, ought to be read aloud to be judged accurately, and Leiber’s stuff cries out for it.
In 1983, I was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy off the coast of Lebanon during their civil war. I had brought several of Leiber’s books with me because I considered them my old friends and I was far from home. So I wrote the author to let him know. Now, Fritz Leiber was generally anti-military and a lifelong pacifist, but that didn’t stop him from replying to a far-away sailor. (The “Ballad of Fafhrd” he mentions is a song I wrote for him ten years before, but had never before had the courage to send to him, even though as a conservatory-trained musician I knew it was not bad. I also hinted at a story I had in mind that involved wizards playing poker with a Tarot deck, and he mentions that, too.)
These two postcards are among my most prized possessions. Both men now live only in their work. But they are two of the big reasons I write short stories. And the very biggest reasons that I read them.