Monday, February 22, 2010

A Visit to the Wizard


I’ve had several exchanges of emails lately with Wenllian “Billee” Stallings, daughter of the late, great Will F. Jenkins who, under the pen name of Murray Leinster, was one of the people who built the genre of science fiction.  As David Hartwell recently observed, “In a parallel world, Murray Leinster is as famous as Robert A. Heinlein."

Billee and her sister Jo-An Evans are currently at work on a memoir of the creator of the parallel worlds story and author of the first “first contact” story (which was titled, appropriately enough, “First Contact”), and in the hope that I might provide an otherwise undocumented bit of tid (and thus a mention in their book), I started jotting down my memories of my one brief encounter with Mr. Jenkins.

Here’s what I came up with:

A Visit to the Wizard

In 1972, when the Summer of Love was a recent memory and dimetrodons still roamed the Earth, I was an undergrad at the College of William and Mary.  My friend Paul Fuchs and I had the privilege of accompanying my favorite English teacher, Dr. David Clay Jenkins, on a visit to "Ardudwy," his home in Clay Bank, Virginia to see Murray Leinster.  It was like visiting a wizard.  I was overawed by his intelligence, by his kindness, by the enormous piles of books in his living room, by the experimental apparatus he had set up on the dining room table for an invention he was trying to find a practical use for, indeed by pretty much everything about him.  He was quite a raconteur.  Clustered on a corner of his kitchen table were trophies for several science fiction awards, and he had a funny anecdote for each one, save the last.  “And that’s my Hugo,” he said in a way that indicated he would have valued it more if only it had given him a story to tell about it.

One detail that impressed me greatly was his vast array of shelves of his own books.  If I recall correctly, they covered an entire wall. It seemed impossible that one person could write so many books.  He mentioned that he kept three copies of everything – and was looking for another copy of The Time Tunnel, of which he had only two – so that when he passed on, each of his daughters could have a complete set of his works.  .

And then there was the Submarine Story

During World War II, Robert A. Heinlein created a volunteer think tank with fellow science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp, who worked with him at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  They met formally once a week in the evening to consider problems given to them by Navy officials.  Several other science fiction writers were involved as well, including L. Ron Hubbard.

Will Jenkins told me that Heinlein had wanted him as a member but had been overruled by the top brass because he had only a grammar school education.  However, Heinlein did arrange to informally pass along problems that he and the other writers were stuck on.  One of these was the problem of the submarine periscope.  When it was up, it left a V-shaped wake in the water, and enemy aircraft pilots used that fact to spot their location.

So Jenkins build an apparatus in his bathtub to simulate the movement of a periscope through water and after some tinkering came up with a solution.  Long strips of cloth attached to the periscope would break up the wake sufficiently to make it undetectable.  He sent his solution in to the Navy.

The solution had no practical value, as it turned out, because by then both sides had radar, so the periscope wakes were irrelevant.  But he got a response back from the admiral who evaluated it, with a question written on the cover sheet:  "I understand that the inventor came up with this solution in the bathtub.  My question is -- what was he using for the periscope?"

He also said (and this is something I don't think I've seen written down anywhere) that for a time after the publication of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” (a story published in 1942 which was so conversant with the mechanics of atomic bombs that officials worried that the Trinity Project might have been compromised) the government arranged to read the stories John W. Campbell had bought for Astounding before publication, to make certain further inadvertent leaks didn’t occur.  Something he wrote apparently fell under this category, for one day “a very polite young man from the FBI” appeared at his door to request his file copy, early drafts, and any notes for the story, which he of course handed over. Earlier, Campbell’s copy had been confiscated as well.  A quarter century after the event, he was sure the need for secrecy was long past – but that it would be next to impossible to have the story de-classified.  Which was a pity, he said, for he had completely forgotten what the story was about, and he would like to know!

On that same visit, I asked Will Jenkins one of those questions that only a naïve young man can ask:  Whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future.  With a little smile, a distinct twinkle in his eye, and a whimsical touch of an Irish lilt to his voice, he quoted the Virginian ironic fantasist James Branch Cabell, saying, "I contemplate the spectacle with appropriate emotions.”

And now, decades later, a writer myself, I still find that the simplest imaginable statement of my duties.


kyle cassidy said...

one of my favorite scifi stories in my youth, and to this day is "Exploration Team" with it's trained kodiak bears, reptialian monsters, camera toting eagle, and, if i recall correctly, flame throwing tank, none of which is absurd as it sounds when M.L. puts it down in such a wonderful way.

Michael Swanwick said...

Did you know that Leinster's agent urged him not to write science fiction? It didn't pay as well as his other markets did. He only wrote the stuff because he loved it.

Which is why we remember him today and not his brother, who was also a writer.

There's a lot of great stuff in this in-the-works book.