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Longevity in Writers

Entry updated 25 January 2024. Tagged: Theme.

It did not yet seem remarkable in 1979, when the first edition of this encyclopedia was released, with many founding authors of Genre SF still in mid career. A few decades later, however, when the second edition appeared in 1993, it seemed appropriate to include an entry on the extreme longevity of some sf and fantasy writers and publications (for magazines and their editors see Longevity in Publications). Three decades later, as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the phenomenon of longevity has become all the more noticeable, especially in a field like sf whose editors and readers commendably pay honour to (and publish the work of) elder figures who have perhaps passed their prime; this entry has massively increased in size.

Defining longevity is an arbitrary process, and is usually subaltern to evaluation. In referring to the longevity of writers, we are in the first instance referring to the length of their professional lives rather than to biological age. Given this premise, there remains the difficulty of defining "career", whose beginning may not always, in sf circles, correspond to first professional sale, or to the inception of a full writing life. What in the end we hope to recognize are more or less continuous creative spans over which, without significant gaps, writers produced material intended for publication. Even so, finding unfrivolous markers is rarely straightforward because (as we've noted) the start of a career can be hard to fix, and few writers retire, most remaining active (if they are able) until the end. Consequently the dates and time spans considered here – taking into account as we must collected editions that may contain no newly written material – are consciously generous.

One can establish some basic starting points by considering the two major pioneers of sf, Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H G Wells (1866-1946). Leaving aside a stage play completed in 1850, Verne's first work of sf interest was "Un Voyage en ballon" (August 1851 Musée des familles) and he was still actively writing at the time of his death in March 1905, a career of over 53 years. Identifying the start of Wells's career is less easy, since he was writing material from the point he founded The Science Schools Journal in December 1886, and his sf work had certainly started by the time he began publishing there with "The Chronic Argonauts" (April-June 1888 The Science Schools Journal; vt The Chronic Argonauts: A Precursor to The Time Machine 2012). He too wrote virtually to the day of his death in August 1946, certainly to the production of his film treatment "Whither Mankind?" in May 1946, so we can assess Wells's career at 58 years without being too generous.

The current record for writers within the field is still held by Jack Williamson (1908-2006), whose first published story was "The Metal Man" (December 1928 Amazing) and whose final completed story was "The Mists of Time" in Millenium 3001 (anth 2006) edited by Russell Davis and Martin H Greenberg, published in February 2006, a span of over 77 years. Frederik Pohl (1919-2013), whose first professionally published story – a collaboration, "Before the Universe" – appeared in July 1940, was still actively producing his daily blog and writing the occasional story and essay in 2013, 73 years later, his last blog appearing just before his death on 2 September 2013. In fact one can go back further to Pohl's first published poem in the October 1937 Amazing Stories and grant him a creative career of 76 years in all. A figure of some importance, though less significant as an sf writer, Curt Siodmak (1902-2000) sold his first adult stories to Das Magazin in Germany in 1924, and continued to write novels, stories and screenplays throughout his life, completing an autobiography, Wolf Man's Maker (2001) just before his death. His career therefore also spanned 76 years. Hugh B Cave (1910-2004), more closely associated with supernatural and horror fiction as well as many adventure stories for the Slick magazines, had a serial published in his local Sunday School newspaper in 1926 before his first professional sale, "The Corpse on the Grating" (February 1930 Astounding); his last book, The Mountains of Madness (2004) appeared one month before his death, a writing career of between 74 and 78 years.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was active in fan circles from 1937; his story "The Pendulum" appeared in Futuria Fantasia in Fall 1939 and was later reworked as a professional story for Amazing Stories, which can be taken as a starting point for his career of 73 years, the last story published in his lifetime being The Nefertiti-Tut Express: A Story in Screenplay (2012 chap). It is less easy to assess the full extent of the career of Stuart J Byrne (1913-2011), whose first published story was "The Music of the Spheres" (August 1935 Amazing Stories) and who remained active until at least 2008 with the e-book Lord of the Djinn, making a span of 73 years, though he was less active in the sf field for some of those years. James E Gunn's career extended without break from his debut with "Communications" (September 1949 Startling Stories) as Edwin James until his death in late 2020, about 71 years of activity. The record for a woman writer within the genre almost certainly belongs to Andre Norton (1912-2005). Although her first novel, The Prince Commands (1934) was not sf, soon after she "sold" both Garan the Eternal and "The People of the Crater" to William L Crawford, and though she had to wait many years for them to appear, they were part of her early active writing career. Her books continued to appear until her death, a notional span of 70-71 years (although clouded by reliance on collaborators who may have written most or all of her late works). Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008) was active until his death (though much of his late work also relied on collaborators); his first sf appearance was with "Loophole" (April 1946 Astounding), a span of 62 years, but his first professional sale had been the article "Man's Empire of Tomorrow" in Tales of Wonder for Winter 1938, extending his career to 70 years. Robert Silverberg, whose first professionally published story was "Gorgon Planet" (February 1954 Nebula), remains active: a 70 year span.

Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994), whose first professionally published story was "The Desert Lich" (November 1924 Weird Tales), was active at least until 1990, making a span of 66 years, though his first published story, in an amateur magazine, was "The Eye Above the Mantel" (March 1921 The United Amateur) suggesting a creative career of 69 years. Tom Purdom (1936-2024), who published his first story in 1957, remained active till his death, making 67 years. Peter S Beagle (1939-    ) began to publish with "Telephone Call" (July 1957 Seventeen) and remains active, making 67 years; Michael Moorcock (1939-    ), who has published prolifically from around 1956/57 remains active, giving him around 67 years; Joyce Carol Oates (1938-    ), whose first professional publication was in 1957, has remained continually active, making 67 years. William F Nolan's first published story "The Immortal Ones: A Satire" (1952 Ray Bradbury Review) was preceded by other Fanzine work; he remained active until around 2018, giving him a career of around 66 years. Jack Vance (1916-2013), who was nearly thirty when he turned to writing with "The World-Thinker" (Summer 1945 Thrilling Wonder) and wrote no further novels after Lurulu (2004), but remained arguably active up to 2010, having then completed his collection Hard-Luck Diggings (coll 2010) with new material: a span of 65 years; Ron Goulart (1933-2022), who published his first story in 1952 and his last in 2017, making 65 years. John Clute (1940-    ), whose first professional publication was "Carcajou Lament" (1959 Triquarterly), remains active, giving 65 years. Thomas Pynchon (1937-    ), whose first story of genre interest was "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" (Spring 1959 Epoch Magazine), remains active (as far as can be known), giving 65 years. Tom DeLillo (1936-    ) began publishing with "The River Jordan" (Winter 1960 Epoch) and remains active, making 64 years. Harry Harrison (1925-2012), who was a professional illustrator from 1946, and an author 1951-2010, giving 64 years. Brian Aldiss published regularly for 63 years from his sf debut "Criminal Record" (1954 Science Fantasy #9) until his death in 2017. Raymond Z Gallun (1910-1994), who began with "The Space Dwellers" (November 1929 Wonder Stories) and whose last novel was Bioblast (1985) followed by his sf memoir Starclimber (1991), worked for 62 years; Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (1910-2003) published comparatively little fiction but played an important role in sf publishing; his writing career nevertheless ran for 60 years from "The Man with the Silver Disc" (February 1930 Scientific Detective Monthly) to The Scroll of Lucifer (1990); Ben Bova, whose first story appeared in 1960 and his last novel in 2020, making an even 60 years.

Some careers were marked by long intermissions. Nelson S Bond's (1908-2006) first sf story was "Down the Dimensions" (April 1937 Astounding), though he had written earlier Pulp stories since 1935. Although there were fallow years when he worked as a bookdealer and in public relations during the 1960s and 1970s, he returned to writing in the 1990s with "Proof of the Pudding" (October/November 1999 Asimov's) and assembled a collection The Far Side of Nature (coll 2002) which would give a sporadic career of 65 years. Likewise E Hoffmann Price who, whilst only occasionally involved with the sf field, sold his first story to Droll Stories in 1924 and saw his last novel, Operation Isis (1987) published 63 years later.

Many more had careers between 50 to 60 years. L Sprague de Camp (1907-2000), who began with "The Isolinguals" (September 1937 Astounding) and who published The Swords of Zinjaban (1991) with his wife Catherine A Crook de Camp, a span of 54 years – extended to 59 years if his autobiography Time and Chance (1996) and his final historical short story "Captain Leopard" in Classical Stories (anth 1996) edited by Mike Ashley, are counted – and he remained actively working until his death. Dean R Koontz (1945-    ), who published his first story "Kittens" in Readers and Writers (anth 1966), remains active, a span of 58 years; Clifford D Simak's (1904-1988) first published sf was "The World of the Red Sun" (December 1931 Wonder Stories) and his last was Highway of Eternity (1986), a span of 55 years; William Mayne (1928-2010) was active 1954-2009, making 55 years. Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) began with "Two Sought Adventure" (August 1939 Unknown; vt "The Jewels in the Forest" in Two Sought Adventure, coll 1957); his late collection The Leiber Chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber (coll 1990) edited by Martin H Greenberg announces his writing lifespan on the cover. Murray Leinster (1896-1975) sold sketches to The Smart Set from February 1916 onwards; his first fiction proper was "Oh, Aladdin" (11 January 1919 All-Story Weekly) and his last was Land of the Giants No 3: Unknown Danger (1969), a span of 50 to 53 years. Even a comparative youngster in terms of natural lifespan, such as Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), whose career began when he was very young with "Marooned off Vesta" (March 1939 Amazing), managed a 50-year span up to the solo novel Nemesis (1989), and indeed continued to write stories, collaborative novels and articles until only months before his death early in 1992, a creative career of 53 years.

Among the non-genre writers who nevertheless published several works of sf interest is Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), whose career is usually treated as running from at least 1920 to 1997, 77 years, though in fact he published his first poems in November 1911, and his posthumously published war-diaries had in fact been actively composed throughout his four years' service in World War One, extending his span of active literary output (if not unintermitted publishing) to at least 85 years. His works of sf interest appeared over a 44-year span, from Auf den Marmorklippen (1939; trans Stuart Hood as On the Marble Cliffs 1947) to Aladins Problem (1983; trans Joachim Neugroschel as Aladdin's Problem 1992). The active career of Herman Wouk (1915-2019) began with Radio plays around 1935, and he remained active till at least 2015, giving him a career of 80 or more years. The active career of Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) is usually cited as 70 years, from 1889 to his last book in 1959, and his fantasy writing career at 54 years from A Deal With the Devil (1895) to Address Unknown (1949), but in fact Phillpotts's first-ever publication was a grim poem which he had entitled "The Witches' Sabbath" but which appeared as "Original Poem" in Thespis during 1880, a career of 79 years. Much of the work of Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) flirted with sf, myth and historical fantasy. Her first work was a privately published quasi-utopian play, Saunes Bairos: A Study in Recurrence (1913 chap) performed in May 1913, and her last newly published story was "What Kind of Lesson?" in Starfield (anth 1989) edited by Duncan Lunan, 76 years later. The career of Bertrand Russell – 1895 to 1970 – lasted 75 years. P G Wodehouse (1881-1975) began publishing by 1900 at the latest, his last complete novel being Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974), giving 74 years or more. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), whose involvement in sf/fantasy was sporadic though not inconsiderable, began his active career with his early music reviews in The Hornet in 1876, and was active until his death in November 1950, 74 years later.

The lengths of these professional lives and of others like them are not merely trivial material for the record books, as we have argued. They came about partly because the sf community, made up of writers, editors, publishers, agents, critics and fans, exists as a community – a community which, sometimes sentimentally, cares for its elders (although surprisingly many continued to write near their best into old age, Fritz Leiber being a particularly clear example). It is ironic that the literature of the future was, to a degree, for many years in the hands of men and women of the past; and there is no doubt that towards the end of the twentieth century, young writers, trying to get published, may have resented the fossil dominance of Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein, who not only took up valuable space in the bookstores but also, it must have seemed late in their lives, would never stop writing. This situation has changed substantially over the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

The longevity of these careers is or was for many years matched by the longevity in print of what they wrote Traditionally there was no other genre which kept its classic texts in print or focused on its past with anything like the same selfconscious zeal as sf did (we here speak of Genre SF texts rather those which have won universal acceptance as classics, as with Verne, Wells, Orwell, Mary Shelley and others). In sf, relatively crude work dating as far back as the mid-1930s, like the Lensman series of E E "Doc" Smith, was still finding new readers in the twenty-first century. The writers of the Golden Age of SF – Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Robert A Heinlein, Clifford D Simak, A E van Vogt and many others – were long recycled for each generation (though some, like Blish, Simak and van Vogt, have faded somewhat from sight). The same is true of more recent classics (some of them now well past their half century) by Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, Philip K Dick – a particular favourite of academia and Cinema – and a host of others. In the UK, the Gollancz SF Masterworks series has for many years continued its reprinting of significant titles. Meanwhile, cheap ebook reissues of older and out-of-copyright work proliferate but tend more and more towards invisibility in the vast flood of new, recent and self-published material appearing in digital format.

The oddity of this is that contemporary visions of the future exist side-by-side with rivals out of the Golden Age of SF that, in the context of our era of rapid change, are ancient history. What confuses the issue further is the tendency of sf, like the Worm Ouroboros, to eat its own tail (or its own parents). There is a strangely conservative self-cannibalism in the sf culture, always redigesting "new" ideas which might easily be sixty years old, and this constant recourse to the SF Megatext is not restricted to its lower echelons. Of all genres, one might expect sf – with its claimed focus on change and the future – to be the one whose cutting edge would be continually resharpened. But, faced with the actual situation, we might cynically propose that sf is more like a wave, whose constituent molecules – the writers working at any one time – are always changing, but which seems as it approaches us to be exactly the same wave it was while still distant.

There are good aspects, however, to the longevity of successful sf texts. Sf's generic stability is a function of its past co-existing with its present, and it is for this reason, too, that sf's icons take on such density and richness, so that it has become the most resonant of all popular literatures. Its words and its metaphors and its narrative structures carry not just the burden of yesterday but also convey some of yesterday's excitement (and these images are not static; they slowly grow and change with the years, like a tree). It is also the case that many of the truths about the world to come we think we discover (and which we discover daily) can be found, maturely foretold, in sf written before most of us were born. Much that we experience in the twenty-first century seems new-coined; but much of it can be understood – or refashioned – as consequence.

An sf that was always genuinely new would be intolerable; it would concuss us with future shock. The reward for sf's longevity is that it remains workable; the cost, too often, lies in its adherence to the familiar and safe. [PN/DRL/JC/MA]

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