For decades starting in the 1970s, the University of California at Irvine asked me to be the default escort for visitors and speakers a bit out of the ordinary. This usually meant science fiction writers with a large audience, though not always. I was an sf writer, too, though with real-world credentials as a professor of physics, which some thought qualified me to mediate between the real and the imaginary.
Thus I introduced Ray Bradbury several times to crowds of thousands. He gave the same talk, essentially, mixed in with whatever was currently in the swirl: the promise of Mars, lustful vampires, nostalgia for books and libraries. He was always affable and signed for hours. He asked me to contribute a story to an anthology playing on his themes, and I did with a story “Centigrade 233”—the same temperature as F 451. In it I had a comic line that in that distant anti-book future, the true Bradbury collectibles were those unsigned. He liked that.
Michael Crichton taught a screenwriting class at UCI in the 1970s when his career was in a stall after The Andromeda Strain and lesser movies, before the dinosaur revival movies. I had drinks with him before his night class and introduced him at public talks. He told me how he had worked his way through medical school by writing suspense novels. He said scripts were easier to write, but novels helped you sell the idea. He got his ideas from sf stories, much as George Lucas did.
Guests Good and Bad
The first person I brought to UCI was Avram Davidson. I had noticed in my first year there that a position of visiting faculty had opened; Avram was destitute in the Bay Area (where I’d met him), so I applied for him—and he got it. He was a good writing teacher, and we enjoyed dinners together. He parlayed that into a series of visiting writer positions that got him through the last, impoverished years of his life. He spoke well in public, having had decades of training in panels at sf conventions. I liked him a lot. The English Department faculty ignored him completely.
In the 1980s I became the referee for public debates, starting with G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame vs. Tim Leary. We had dinner beforehand, Leary in his tennis shoes and jeans and clearly stoned, with Liddy orderly, relaxed, affable. They had done this gig before and got along, all topics between them exhausted by now, so mostly they asked me about being a professor and writer. I wanted to know about the Nixon White House, and Liddy complied; I deduced that it was worse than it seemed and Nixon a clear paranoid. Again, I was amazed that such an unbalanced personality had made it through the political circus.
Liddy demolished Leary in the debate and impressed me with his clear, precise logic from premises I doubted: that Nixon knew the country’s enemies and Liddy’s job was to carry out orders without question. Leary mostly told old dope jokes and spoke of the sloppy, ineffable mysteries of life. Leary had lost the audience by the end of it, and Liddy got cheers. I steered clear of the wreck of Leary and had drinks after with Liddy. Theirs was a traveling road show and both knew it.
In 1993 my friend, the biologist Michael Rose, and I assembled a public debate between him and the leading anti-evolutionist in America, Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at UC Berkeley and author of Darwin on Trial in 1992. Michael and I were both astonished by the rise of antiscience in our culture, and we sought a way to take on “intelligent design,” an attempt to put a patina of secularity on top of what is a fundamentally religious belief.
I opened the debate by saying I had no strong religious beliefs because I was an Episcopalian. That got the expected laugh because the crowd was quite fundamentalist. Unlike previous biologists who debated Johnson, Rose used offense, not defense, taking Johnson to task for what he thought a theory of life’s development should be. This revealed that the alternatives to evolution were laughable.
Rose wore a small, calm smile. At the half hour point Johnson’s face began to twitch, eyes narrowed, ears reddened. I watched the audience, having little to do. They resembled a slow-motion crowd at a tennis match, attention swaying lazily, but now watching Johnson as Rose spoke. Rose scored points and Johnson’s face clouded, vexed.
At the end, Johnson, blocked from his favorite arguments by having to fend off Rose’s reasoned points, was visibly angry. Rose walked across the platform and shook Johnson’s hand, but Johnson refused to shake mine. I felt grand, since I made him do it in full view of the crowd. A bit more than 1500 paid $10 each to get in, with 300 UCI students getting in free. So UCI made $15,000 out of fundamentalist Christians, and Johnson got blunted. Plus, it was fun.
Some debates I turned down, such as an Israeli-Palestinian one. I’m pretty much a hard line Zionist though not Jewish, and didn’t think I could be fair.
I got a call from the English department’s Masters of Fine Arts program, the writing mavens. The well-known novelist, Robert Stone, had agreed to come teach for a while with one firm demand—UCI had to get him a rental home in Laguna Beach where I lived. Did I know of any? The market was tight.
By pure chance a friend who taught math at the high school was going on a half-year sabbatical. (Since she didn’t do actual mathematical research, I wondered what a sabbatical would help with; I never found out.) She liked the idea, but: “This Stone guy has a reputation for boozing and being rude. I’ll rent to him only if Benford checks on the house every week.”
I laughed at this, and the deal went through. So each week I knocked on Stone’s door and we had a drink. The house seemed fine. About a month in, Stone waved a hand at a thin fellow who was staying with him for a while—Tom. We shared a bottle of wine, and I gathered from the wandering conversation that Tom wrote, too. It came up that I had lived three years in occupied Germany where my father commanded some artillery units. Tom was fascinated by The War and wanted to know especially about the Nazi policies on weapons, physics, V-2, the lot. I told him some about von Braun’s subscription to Astounding, how issues had come to him through the German embassy in Stockholm, then by diplomatic pouch to him. So von Braun told others about Heinlein’s 1940 story on radioactive dust as a weapon and the Cleve Cartmill story about how to build a nuclear bomb. Tom ate all this up.
Slowly as the weeks wore on, I saw that Tom had read a lot of history, science fiction, knew vast amounts—a vacuum cleaner writer, eager for details. I too am a magpie writer, storing shiny bits away for later. Then dimly I sensed who he was.
I never brought up his identity. Stone finished his teaching and I saw Tom no more, for years. But occasionally I do see him in Laguna, so maybe he has a home there. I nod, leave him be; he’s famously publicity-shy. Only now do I regret that I didn’t ask him about the writing of Gravity’s Rainbow.
In spring 2001 the campus speaker administrator called me to introduce Douglas Adams just hours before he was to appear in a poorly announced talk. I met him beforehand with his wife, Jane Belson, and gave a quick introduction to the audience of maybe twenty people. Adams was unbothered by the small crowd and gave it his all, funny and deft, drawing on his Hitchhiker mythos. After, we had drinks with his assistants, and he told me he was moving to the Santa Barbara area to write a movie version of the Hitchhiker tale, maybe the start of a series. He wanted to “go Californian” as he put it, away from England. Maybe he could get some exercise, spend time out of doors, get to know Hollywood. That might speed up his writing; after all, he quoted himself, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
I told him how I had tuned into the first, radio version of Hitchhiker when I was a visiting fellow at Cambridge in the Institute of Astronomy in the late 1970s. It was unexpected, hilarious, a deliciously ironic view of sf ideas. From that he grew the whole, vastly amusing landscape. He nodded, saying, “You guys bring the ideas, we bring the irony.” A few months later he was exercising in a gym, had chest pains, shook off help, went home to rest—and collapsed with a major heart attack, dying at 49.
The Sirens of Slaughterhouse
When in 1972–73 I taught a night class in modern sf with David Samuelson, a Long Beach State professor with sf credentials, we had a fine bevy of writers come to speak: Norman Spinrad, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Sheila Finch, Tim Powers. Still, the most striking writer I hosted for a day in the early 1990s was Kurt Vonnegut.
The university asked me to walk him around the campus, have dinner with him, and host his public talk in our largest center, where he drew over a thousand. With his curly hair askew, deep red pouches under his eyes, and rumpled clothes, he looked like a part-time philosophy professor, typically chain smoking, coughs and wheezes dotting his speech.
To my surprise, he knew who I was. “Sure, I’ve read—” and he rattled off six of my titles, starting with Timescape and through my Galactic Center series, then incomplete. I didn’t mention my review of his Galápagos in1985, which found the book weak, and he didn’t either, probably because, he said, he seldom bothered with reviews. He was affable, interested in the campus, and wanted to talk about sf. “I live in Manhattan and go to the literary parties, but I don’t read their books. I read just enough reviews to know what to say, then look enigmatic.”
Vonnegut reminisced that that his mother, Edith, had the greatest influence on him. “She thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms. All to little avail. I think she envied me later.”
He said his favorite writer was Orwell, tried to emulate him. “I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity.” Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World heavily influenced his debut novel, Player Piano in 1952. He defended the sf genre and deplored a perceived sentiment that “no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works.”
He had grown up reading and then writing sf but shed the label of science fiction writer with Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969. Its subtitle, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death told its intent, refracted through an sf lens. After the book appeared, Vonnegut told me, he went into a severe depression and vowed never to write another novel. Suicide was always a temptation. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping pills and alcohol and failed. Smoking seemed to be a half-measure in that direction, I thought, watching him light one from the butt of the previous. Yet he was a man of mirth—perhaps the other side of the same coin?
His novels after Slaughterhouse-Five had been an ironic stew of plot summaries and autobiographical notes. Often, Kilgore Trout was a character, plainly a stand-in for Ted Sturgeon; I asked him about this and he nodded. “If I’d wasted my time creating new characters, I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter.”
He remarked that he could easily have become a crank, but I said he hadn’t because he was too smart. From his soft, ironic comments I gathered he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress. To me, he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction—whatever it took.
Before I introduced him that evening, he insisted on smoking two cigarettes outside the big, smoking-free UCI center where a thousand people waited. Then I did a thirty-second introduction and he spoke for an hour. Before questions, he had to take a break—for another cigarette outside. After half an hour of questions it was over, and he delayed the small reception for him to have another. Then we went in to meet the Chancellor and others of the elite. Vonnegut accepted a glass of chardonnay and while talking took out a cigarette and smoked for the rest of the evening. Nobody remarked on this; it was Vonnegut, after all.
In his remarks that day and evening I felt a very deep, dark despair. I mentioned that when Kilgore Trout found the question “What is the purpose of life?” written on a bathroom wall, his response is, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool.” Trout’s remark, I said, was curious, seeing that Vonnegut was an atheist, so there is no Creator to report back to. In The Sirens of Titan, there is a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent; that seemed to be his true position.
That night he said, “The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.” In the end, he said, he believed that “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
Some years later he nearly died in a fire started because he fell asleep smoking. In 2007 he died, at 84, of brain injuries incurred several weeks prior from a fall.
As usual, he had a great exit line. In 2006 he sardonically said in a Rolling Stone interview that he would sue the makers of the Pall Mall cigarettes he had been smoking since he was twelve years old for false advertising. “And do you know why?” he said. “Because I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me.”
The last thing he said to me was that anything that persuaded people that they were not leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe, was good. “So keep writing.”
Gregory Benford lives in Irvine, California.