Gordon Van Gelder Likes the Hat

Gordon Van Gelder. Photo by Leslie Howle.

By Carl Slaughter: Gordon Van Gelder does themed anthologies.  A painstaking and time-consuming but rewarding task.

CARL SLAUGHTER:  Why did you give up the editor’s chair of FSF?

GORDON VAN GELDER:  I was wearing two hats — that of the publisher and that of the editor.

With the publisher’s hat on, I could see that the magazine was losing some of its edge –it was growing too predictable, falling short in some other ways.  So I tried bringing in a guest editor to liven things up, and that went well.  So I decided it was time to step down (wearing my editor’s hat) and I offered the editing job to C. C. Finlay (with my publisher’s hat on).

CS:  Why stay on as publisher?

GVG:  I like the hat.

But seriously, publishing a magazine isn’t a bad job.  And someone’s got to do it.

CS:  Looking at your list of anthologies, it seems you’re still doing some best of, but have been moving toward themed.  Is that an accurate interpretation?

GVG:  Fairly accurate.  The path we take is mostly a function of what the market wants and what book publishers want.  If we could publish a non-theme “Best of F&SF” anthology every year as we did in the 1950s, I’d be happy with that.  But the book market in 2017 is vastly different from what it was in 1954.

CS:  What’s the selection process for the themes?

GVG:  Again, it’s mostly a function of what the market will support and what interests book publishers.  There’s such a wealth of material in our back issues that we can produce good anthologies on a lot of themes.  (I have detailed notes for several.)  But how many of them will sell well?

CS:  What’s the selection process for the stories?

GVG:  It varies a bit from book to book, but mostly, it’s a matter of pinning down the prominent stories on the theme, and then doing research and filling in the book with lesser-known works.

My favorite one to assemble was the Mars anthology, Fourth Planet From The Sun.  That one had a real dynamic to it, from Bradbury to Zelazny to Varley to Alex Irvine.  The whole book seemed to assemble itself, much as writers will sometimes say that a book wrote itself.

CS:  Your latest anthology is on repopulation.  I confess, I am not familiar with that subgenre.  Give us the background on this project.

GVG:  The subgenre is like a relative of the old Adam and Eve stories — a lot of stories born from anxiety over the threat of nuclear bomb destruction and wondering what happens if humanity mostly manages to wipe itself out.  (In fact, there was a recent book on this exact subject, something called The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell on how to rebuild civilization.  I used a quotation from it as the epigraph for my book.)

I got interested in the subgenre when I happened to encounter two stories on the theme from the 1950s and I thought, “I read a lot of these stories as a kid, but I don’t think I’ve seen one in the last fifteen years.”

When I dug into it, I found a lot of interesting material.  Since the subgenre by definition basically calls for a scenario with a small number of people under fairly intense pressure, the stories tended to be dramatic and often extreme.  Some of them are deeply moving, others are disturbing.

Researching the book took a long time, but it was a lot of fun reading through anthologies and old magazine issues. It was also interesting to see a lot of the 1950s stories from the SF magazines that have never been reprinted.

One thing that frustrated me is that I heard about a couple of stories I was never able to locate.  If you don’t mind, I’ll mention one now in hopes that someone seeing this interview will be able to identify it:

As I heard it (and this may well be confused or mis-remembered, especially since I feel like I read it myself when I was a teen) the story concerns a p.r. or advertising guy who’s hired to convince men to go to Mars or another planet because they need men there.  And he’s so good at his job that he convinces all the men to leave, leaving him alone on the home planet with the responsibility of repopulating Earth. But the kicker at the end comes in the form of his confession to the reader: “I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m sterile.”

CS:  One of your anthologies is on climate change.  Do any of these stories provide solutions?

GVG: Not really.  If I’d thought any of the writers could actually make things better, I’d have sent them to a college friend of mine who’s working on these things for real.  I saw the anthology more as an opportunity for writers to dramatize different aspects of what we humans might experience as the planet changes.

 

CS:  Your next project is on dystopias.  Why do in this direction?  Isn’t this a well-worn trail?

GVG: Does it answer your question if I say that we came up with the idea for the book on January 20th and most of the stories are specifically focused on the next four years?

CS:  What else is on the horizon for Gordon Van Gelder?

GVG:  Well, aside from continuing to run F&SF, I’ve got a couple of smallish writing projects — an article and a book introduction — that I need to finish up.  I’m also helping a couple of writers get some of their older work back in print.  I don’t have any more books under contract right now, but I’ve got a few ideas simmering.  And who knows?  Maybe another odd, half-forgotten subgenre will come along and grab me and set me off on another four years of research to produce a book that’s liable to interest only a few oddballs like myself.

You just never know.

26 thoughts on “Gordon Van Gelder Likes the Hat

  1. Oh jeez – does the repopulation anthology include that dreadful Randall Garrett story, “Queen Bee?”

  2. Oh dear, someone honestly reprinted “Queen Bee”? And not in the context of an anthology of the most sexist SFF stories ever?

  3. You make a convincing argument that there are better things I could do with my time than work on this site.

  4. @Mike Glyer, if you’re feeling like your work is unappreciated, I’m very sorry for that. What you do day after day is so valuable and I doubt it goes unnoticed by anyone.

    That said, have you read Queen Bee? I just did and it’s going to take one hell of an introduction to keep from…alienating every female reader under the age of 100? Throwing the reading device at the wall really, really hard? Some other reaction that I can’t describe, mostly because I’m sitting here feeling really sick?

  5. It used to be that everyone’s a critic, but nowadays, with the coming of the internet, everyone’s an editor instead. And we all know about editors. You have to give an editor something to change. Once he’s peed in your story, he likes the flavor better and will buy it.

  6. Cheryl S: I think you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion of the story even though I haven’t read it. Ideally, the way things should work is that a few people who feel a need to express their outrage about this story being included would do so, and some other people would discuss different reactions to the many other topics surfaced in the interview. Then the complaints would not overwhelm the effort. But the psychology of the internet is such that a post like this will only get a few comments, and those from readers resent something reported in it.

  7. I would to register as “astounded”, not “outraged”. It’s been out of print for almost sixty years. Staying out of print was the safe bet.

    It’s the “In the Barn” of the 1950s. Not so surprising, given some of the other Garretts I’ve read. I see GvG included the Anderson I thought might be a reply to it but not We Who Are About To probably because it’s a novel and too long.

  8. So an editor picked what appears to be the most infamous story on the theme of his anthology. And this is a problem? I mean, I just spent a little time looking for a copy online and, when I didn’t find it, looked at a couple of summaries. Yikes! I didn’t finish them. But if you’re going to do a themed anthology, that’s an appropriate sort of choice.

    Moving on to more interesting topics, does anyone have a thought about the story Van Gelder couldn’t find? It reminded me roundaboutly of a part of Gore Vidal’s Kalki, but played for laughs. It sounded vaguely like Fredric Brown or maybe Pohl and Kornbluth.

  9. @Mike Glyer – But the psychology of the internet is such that a post like this will only get a few comments, and those from readers resent something reported in it.

    I spent all day Saturday in a meeting with people similar to those found here, bright, thoughtful, articulate, bound together by a shared interest. The discussion was lively but not contentious, even though a good portion of the actual conversation consisted of various disagreements. If the meeting had been recorded, it would have seemed quite negative, but it wasn’t. What a recording would not capture is the people nodding their heads in agreement throughout the day. The internet is like that turned up to 11, with the added fillip that it’s poor etiquette to “me too” things.

    @John A Arkansawyer, if you actually want to read the story, I could try and fail to embed a link or you could type “Queen Bee Randall Garrett” into a Google search box and open the link from The Mumpsimus.

  10. I thought the interview was interesting – a nice view behind the scenes.

    I respect the ability to step back from a role when it no longer suits. 🙂

    Re: Repopulation, I wonder why that particular subgenre has fallen so far out of style? Were there any modern stories included in the anthology or is it just not touched upon at all anymore (or at least not within the pages of FSF)? It would be interesting to be able to compare a modern approach with the older stuff.

    I suppose Tor.com’s yearly Best Of (ebook only?) anthologies are a bit easier to pull off, since they’re the publisher as well and can almost just use it as advertising. I do like themed anthologies, though, so I’m not aure I mind.

  11. @Cheryl S.: I actually didn’t want to read it, based on what I got from the summaries. Repopulation isn’t a theme that much interests me, and the title is a telegram, right?

    But since you pointed me to a copy of it, I slept on it, then started to read it. By the time I got to Brytell’s Law, I’d had enough. It’s rare for me to DNF short fiction, but this one achieved that, and made me wonder whether I really liked the Lord Darcy stories that much. I’m glad I have Michael Swanwick’s Mongolian Wizard stories* to scratch that itch.

    I’m not sure I have to read any more of that story to call it a classic of sorts. I’m not sure how you could put together an anthology on the topic without including it. I mean, this was so dire, I tried putting Brytell into the anagram generator to see if there was a hidden meaning. Then I added s, then law. TRY SWELL LAB was the closest I could get.

    So thanks for the link. I think.

    *Speaking of which, I’ve been waiting anxiously for a while now.

  12. Meredith:

    Re: Repopulation, I wonder why that particular subgenre has fallen so far out of style? Were there any modern stories included in the anthology or is it just not touched upon at all anymore (or at least not within the pages of FSF)? It would be interesting to be able to compare a modern approach with the older stuff.

    According to the content listing on ISFDB, the newest story if from 1974. There’s also one from 1968, the rest are from 50s and early 60s.

    If I understand the definition of the subgenre correctly, it seems to rest on two premises: That humanity could be nearly wiped out, and that a quick population increase is desirable if that happens. I think in particular the second one have fallen somewhat out of favour.

    There are modern stories about colony ships and other situations where small groups of humans are struggling to survive. “Sanctuary” by Allen Steele is one I read recently, and at least one of the stories in Old Venus portrays a small barely-surviving colony on Venus. But while reproduction and genetic diversity may be part of this type of modern story, they tend to focus on other aspects of survival, and the pressure is more often on limiting growth (and resource use) than on increasing the population.

    Then there’s the feminist variety, where pressure on women to act as “baby machines” is explicitly painted as bad. It’s a big part of The Handmaid’s Tale, (although 1985 is not really “modern” anymore) and I vaguely remember a couple short stories with a similar premise.

  13. Johan P.

    Sssshhhhh… you’ll summon Doctor Science, and she will explain why repopulation from a small group will not work, and rant about Seveneves again.

    Well, okay, I actually quite enjoy Doctor Science’s biology rants. 😀

  14. @Meredith
    I suspect repopulation stories fell out of fashion largely because women don’t particularly care about being treated as walking wombs and no one seeing any problems with it. And that is a very common theme with such stories, even if few of them are as awful as The Queen Bee.

    Besides, we still have variations on the repopulation story, though they’re mostly dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is the obvious example, though there are also a couple of YA dystopias along those lines.

  15. Er…sorry, Mike. Didn’t mean to cause a fuss. No doubt the story will have the proper editorial setting to put it in context (i.e., point out, “holy shit, the misogyny on this thing…”). And the climate change one looks interesting (though the dystopia one with it seems a bit redundant).

  16. @Cora Buhlert:

    I suspect repopulation stories fell out of fashion largely because women don’t particularly care about being treated as walking wombs and no one seeing any problems with it. And that is a very common theme with such stories, even if few of them are as awful as The Queen Bee.

    Exemplary! That’s the word I was looking for. It’s exemplary of the sub-genre.

    And yeah, the idea of repopulating from six people isn’t scientifically sound, though I figure a lot of folks would reproduce anyway.

    I’m thinking now about related sub-genres, like whatever you’d call a reduced fertility story. There’s Maximum Light–I love her stuff, but man that was creepy in places–and Children of Man for starts. Then there’s deliberate fertility decrease. And what about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

  17. “Re: Repopulation, I wonder why that particular subgenre has fallen so far out of style? “

    My guess is that they have been replaced with stories about clones and artificial wombs. Not sure if those have fallen that much out of style, it is just that it isn’t the main focus anymore. Intersteller was quite a popular movie.

  18. I’m thinking now about related sub-genres, like whatever you’d call a reduced fertility story.

    There’s also the related demographic transition story, where people who are capable of having lots of kids don’t. Your average American woman can have dozens of kids, for example, and any given American man could in theory father millions of kids per week, given IVF and a milking machine of sufficient power. For various socioeconomic reasons they do not. In societies where the total fertility rate is lower than the replacement rate, population can decline (depending on details of immigration). In fact, even though vigourous waterboarding of SFWA’s membership reveals that few of them have heard of phrases like “demographic transition”, lower than replacement level TFRs are now much more common than they were a century ago. It’s as reasonable to wonder what a world a few centuries into population decline looks like and if there are any routes out of low TFR regimes. Aside from Stross’ orphaned love robots novel, I cannot think of a lot of example from Western SF. Japanese, on the other hand…..

  19. @John A Arkansawyer – By the time I got to Brytell’s Law, I’d had enough. It’s rare for me to DNF short fiction, but this one achieved that, and made me wonder whether I really liked the Lord Darcy stories that much.

    Oh, it gets much worse, but that was a good stopping place. I reread all the Lord Darcy stories last year and while there’s a certain of-their-time-ness to them, I read them with great pleasure and then moved on to the Michael Kurland books and liked them almost as much.

  20. @everyone

    The obvious pitfalls of older sf that tackles repopulation as a primary theme is why I’d be very curious to read a modern take. I’m not sure what it would look like.

    (Bulgaria is a country with very serious problems with population decline but I don’t know whether they have much of a science fiction tradition.)

  21. John K. Arkansawyer: “It sounded vaguely like Fredric Brown or maybe Pohl and Kornbluth.

    Fredric Brown was my first guess as well for the unfound story. There are several story titles in Brown’s listing at isfdb that sound likely candidates.

    (I actually have a lot of Fredric Brown’s old collections. I really, really, really need to spend a few solid weeks or months unboxing, sorting, and shelving books so I might actually check on that sort of hunch.)

  22. If it helps, I like the interviews Carl gets and enjoy reading them, including this one.

    Thanks for the positive vibes.

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