Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Monday, February 8, 2010

Phil Klass, or William Tenn; and Science Fiction

Science fiction went away from what mattered about science fiction.

This, I believe, is what Phil Klass came to understand. He saw the change as it was coming; and he stepped away. Where he went was academia -- the place where forms whose times have passed are put upon the examining table beneath the unforgiving glare of all-night library lamps. That it was science fiction that he was teaching, much of the time, suited him: what had mattered about the form had grown so attenuated that it was no longer a form that could hold him. It could not hold him, so he held it, instead; and he taught it. He taught writing, too. Writing was a living matter -- and it was a way of living that mattered.

Importantly he wrestled with memories, with self, with the nature of science fiction, with history.

He was wrestling with internal matters still in his last year: to speak with him was to know this of him.

Although we were present to one another only through that uncomfortable yet strangely intimate medium of the telephone, Phil and I had marked effect on one another, last year. Aside from giving him chance to voice thoughts and memories, I was able to offer him some documentary confirmation of rumors that had put him on edge for decades. He did considerably more for me: for he was speaking to me across a distance, from his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to my Cashton, Wisconsin -- but more importantly from his 1945 and 1951 to my 2009. Some of the doubts that had put me on edge -- for a mere dozen or fifteen years -- he erased by speaking to me from his store of thoughts and memories. Yet he did more: for he had engaged in a dialog within the field of science fiction, a dialog that started as early as 1946, of pivotal importance. His arguments helped me understand what it was that happened to science fiction in 1956-58 and the years afterward.

This understanding came clearer as I was trying to lift the larger-than-expected project of my Cyril Kornbluth biography into the light of day. In a way, my understanding grew even greater three quarters of a year later, while Phil was in his final illness and we were having no communication -- not by telephone, at least. Yet for weeks -- months, maybe -- I was still communing with Phil, in my wrestling with certain perspectives and ideas he brought to the table; and I was adding my returning words to the conversation, while writing a study of Judy Merril's earlier years in science fiction.

It gave me great pleasure to bring to the story of Cyril Kornbluth some of the story of Phil Klass. The final chapter I hope makes clear the debt I owe Phil for his helping me identify certain strand's in Cyril's life.

I may have paid some of that debt simply by incurring it. So it now occurs to me. Phil had attempted to raise a monument to Cyril, after Cyril's death -- a fact that had been lost, due to the erasures of time ... and perhaps thanks to the erasures of an interested party. That he helped me, with such strength, raise my own monument to Cyril made my task considerably less a solitary one. I see now it may have given him some sense of redress, when placing his shoulder beside mine at certain important moments -- redress for the lasting hurt of having had his own monument to Cyril taken from his hands.

Rest in peace, Phil. I hope the world does a better job than it did during your life of giving your wounded, beautiful soul, in death, its due.

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