Interview with Robert Silverberg about the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology

Yesterday, my latest column on SFWA and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame was published on Kirkus Reviews (read it here). One of my main sources was Grand Master Robert Silverberg, who kindly agreed to be interviewed for this piece. Here's our exchange below: Q: Where did this project (the anthology) originate and what was the particular impulse to look back at that point in time? 

Robert Silverberg: Science Fiction Writers of America was founded in 1965 by Damon Knight.  There were about 70 charter members (I was one) and by the time I became president, succeeding Knight, in 1967, there were some 300 members.  But Knight had set the dues at $1 per year, so the organization’s total income was $300 a year, maybe $4000 in modern purchasing power but still not enough to cover our expenses, which included two publications (the Forum and the Bulletin) and ongoing office expense.  Knight set up the Nebula Awards in 1966 and persuaded Doubleday to publish an annual anthology of the award-winning stories, but SFWA’s share of the advance on the anthology just barely covered the money we lost on the annual awards dinner, so that when I became president I found myself in charge of an organization that had hardly anything in its treasury.  I went to Larry Ashmead, the science-fiction editor at Doubleday, told him about our financial problems, and persuaded him to do a second SFWA anthology, a Hall of Fame book that would select the best short stories up until the inception of the Nebula awards.  (The first award-winning stories had originally been published in 1965. so the cutoff date for this book was 1964.)  Ashmead came through with a $3000 advance, a substantial amount at that time.  We split this the way the advance for the annual anthology was being split: 50% to the writers of the stories used, 25% to the SFWA treasury, 25% to the editor.  Since our financial crisis was extreme and I wanted to get the book published fast (half the advance was due on publication) I simply appointed myself as editor rather than get involved in a prolonged selection process.  With that out of the way, I was able to begin the process of choosing the stories immediately after signing the Doubleday contract.

Q: How was the publisher, Avon, selected, and what were their thoughts on publishing such an anthology?

Robert Silverberg: Avon wasn’t the original publisher.  Doubleday was.  After hardcover publication, Doubleday sold reprint rights to Avon, and Avon kept the book in print for several decades.  Eventually the original contracts lapsed and we were able to re-sell the book to Tor, the current publisher.

Q: The Anthology covers stories from 1929 through 1964: why the long range of time, and why 1929 as a starting point? 

Robert Silverberg: The oldest story nominated for inclusion in the book by the membership was D.D. Sharp’s “The Eternal Man,” first published in 1929.  It didn’t make the final cut, but, since the range of stories voted upon had covered the span from 1929 to 1964, I used those years in the subtitle for the book.  H.G. Wells was writing brilliant s-f stories back at the turn of the century, and I’m not sure why his work wasn’t chosen for the book, since my original call for nominations had said not set any limitations on nationality of authors or date of first publication.  But the voters completely passed Wells over in the nominating process.

Q: Is there a relation between the start up of the Nebula Awards in 1966 and a need to collect similar notable work that preceded it? 

Robert Silverberg: As I said, the book was generated by financial need.  The Nebulas would honor the best stories of the year from 1965 on, and when I needed an idea for a second anthology I decided that that book would honor the pre-Nebula stories.


Q: The stories were voted upon by SFWA members: how did the voting process work?

Robert Silverberg: In the summer of 1967 I announced the new anthology in the SFWA Bulletin and called for nominations, the stories to be no longer than 15,000 words.  (I noted that a second anthology containing longer stories would be published later.)  The deadline for nominations was December 31, 1968.   The stories to be nominated were to have been published no later than 1964.   There were no qualifications set for date of publication other than that, nor was country of origin a consideration, other than that the stories had to have been published in the English language.  Nominations came in sporadically all through 1967 and 1968, until finally I had a list of perhaps 75 stories.  (I don’t have a copy of the list any more.)  From this I devised a ballot that was mailed to the membership early in 1969, with a strict deadline set for voting.  The plan was to include the top fifteen vote-getters in the book plus as many of the second fifteen as would fit within the size of the volume that Doubleday was expecting.

When I had completed the master tally, I could see, in general, which the top fifteen stories were going to be — the voting wasn’t ambiguous — but certain problems arose.  Ray Bradbury, for example, had had four short stories nominated, the most of any writer, two from THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and two from THE ILLUSTRATED MAN.  As a result, the Bradbury vote was split just about equally among the four, and no one of them landed in the top twenty vote-getters, though his aggregate vote placed him well up toward the leaders.  It seemed absurd to me not to include a Bradbury story in the book, thus penalizing him for prolific high-quality production, and I arbitrarily made room for him in the final list.  I asked him which of the four he preferred to represent him and he chose “Mars is Heaven.”  A second Bradbury problem then arose, because my $1500 budget for reprinted stories allowed only a little more than $50 per story, and Bradbury’s agent required a $500 reprint fee, obviously impossible for us to meet.  Once again I turned to Bradbury, pointing out that the honorarium offered was just that, an honorarium for high accomplishment, everybody being paid the same amount, and that I would have to omit him from the book if his agent did not yield.  Bradbury prevailed and we were allowed to have the story.  (Over the succeeding decades, of course, his royalties on the story amounted to many times the original fee.)

Another problem cropped up in the case of Clifford D. Simak.  Two of the seven stories making up his book CITY finished in the second fifteen, one vote apart, but the story that had the higher vote total was not the one that Simak himself preferred to see used in the book.  With his permission I chose to look upon the one-vote differential as statistically insignificant and reversed the order of finish so that “Huddling Place” was the one reprinted.

A third problem involved William Tenn’s “Child’s Play,” which finished well up in the voting, but for which I was unable to get reprint permission because Tenn’s agent at the time (whom I will not name, because he is still active professionally) believed that SFWA was some kind of personal plaything of Damon Knight’s, whom he disliked, and refused to let the story be included in the book.  I appealed personally to William Tenn (actually, Philip Klass), but Klass rarely answered his mail and did not reply by my deadline time, so, reluctantly, I had to leave the story out of the book.

The fourth problem was created by the same agent, who also represented Roger Zelazny.  I regarded the Zelazny story, the most recently written of the nominees, as essential to the book, since it brilliantly demonstrated the evolution of s-f since the Gernsback and Campbell eras.  Here some fancy footwork saved the day.  The Zelazny story had been published by Ace Books in a collection of four of his stories, and, as I suspected, Ace had retained contractual control of anthology rights to the individual stories.  The agent had never had the right to grant permission anyway.  So I bought the reprint rights from Ace, which took 50 percent of Zelazny’s very considerable royalties over the years for the story.  The obstructive agent got nothing.


Q: What were some of the stories that just missed the cutoff? Is there a complete list of nominees anywhere?

Robert Silverberg: I no longer seem to have the complete list of nominees.  In any case, I would not want to make public the names of the stories that missed the cut, in case any of the writers are still alive.


Q: How did you come to be the editor of this book? 

Robert Silverberg: As described above — I thought the book up and, as president of SFWA, named myself editor.


Q: What level of editing did you do for these stories? 

Robert Silverberg: None. I reprinted them exactly as originally published.


Q: What can you tell me about the reception of the book when it was first released? How were its sales? 

Robert Silverberg: The sales were excellent, and when Doubleday’s own hardcover edition went out of print, the Avon reprint edition went through twenty or thirty printings over the years.  It is still selling well under the aegis of Tor.


Q: There's several additional volumes of this: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two, Vol. 3 and Vol 4. Did you have any involvement in those books?

Robert Silverberg: Discussed below.


Q: Was there any sort of handoff to Ben Bova while he edited those volumes? 

Robert Silverberg: I don’t think so.  Ben would have seen the nominating process for the first book while it was happening and would have known what to do.


Q: Vol. 3 collects the Nebula winners from 1965 and 1969, while Vol 4 collects nebula winners from '70 to '74: can you tell me anything about the production of those books?

Robert Silverberg: I did not take part in the production of these two books.  As I recall, the first two volumes were so successful that Avon, by now the publisher of the series, wanted to add a volume or two to the set, and, with the best of the pre-Nebula stories already used, the only thing to do was to start collecting the best of the Nebula winners.


Q: Why did the SFHOF series end after volume 4? 

Robert SilverbergI don’t know.  Avon underwent major changes, eventually disappearing into HarperCollins, and perhaps there was no longer any desire to continue the series.  The rights to the earlier books reverted to SFWA and were eventually sold to Tor, and no new volumes have appeared, but I don’t know why.