If you read this column at least semi-regularly, you already know that back in 1979, MosCon I came to be, in Moscow, Idaho — thanks to the efforts of a small group of fans known collectively as PESFA, or the Palouse Empire Science Fiction Association. (Yeah, it’s wordy; the whole Pullman/Moscow area is collectively known as the “Palouse Empire” — and we needed a pronounceable acronym.) PESFA sprang out of a “class” I was teaching at the Washington State University Free University (not offically affiliated with WSU) on Science Fiction. A “class” (hey, the first few times we met I actually used a blackboard and tried to teach SF…) specifically designed to pull other SF/F lovers in the area out of the woodwork. (I already knew one fellow fan, the late Jon M. Gustafson, who worked at the time for the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU — later, we both wound up working for Cooperative Extension at WSU, which is a land-grant university.) Anyway, out of the “class” grew PESFA, out of PESFA grew MosCon, and out of MosCon grew my friendship with the late, great (well, I think so, anyway!) Gerald Allan Sohl, otherwise known as “Jerry.”
I first became aware of Jerry Sohl’s writing when I was a pre-teen, back in the late ‘50s, mostly getting my SF from the Base Library (my father was in the US Air Force), and my best friend, Jimmy Griffin (I think it was James K. Griffin, but since I’ve not heard from him in half a century, that’s just a guess), who had a giant (by my standards) SF collection, mostly of Ace Doubles. Since a good part of The Transcendent Man (Figure 2) took place on an Army base, it was a natural for me, who had spent a good part of his life on Air Force bases. I was also interested in books about PSI or “psychic” mental powers, like James Blish’s Jack of Eagles, Wilmar H. Shiras’ Children of the Atom, and so on. (Children of the Atom also featured a very smart child protagonist, which dovetailed with another of my fictional likes.) Anyway, The Transcendent Man featured aliens from Capella with all kinds of mental powers who — and you’ll have to forgive me for cribbing from Goodreads; I haven’t read it for many years — “For millions of years…have been harvesting a crop of their own planting: the thought forces released by humans at death. Now their source of power and life, dependent upon human mortality, is threatened by the advance of science.” I remember the protagonist falling in love with the Capellan woman and the discussions around what to do with him. I liked The Transcendent Man so much I started looking for other Sohl books. (I couldn’t find any information about the cover artist for Figure 2; the signature appears to be “Abbott.”)
One thing I discovered about running conventions is that — if you started the convention and head up the convention committee as well as the fan group that spawned it — you can actually get people whose writing you admire to come up and meet you! So with MosCon #2 or #3 (I forget), I got the group to bring up Jerry and Jean Sohl. We had a great time at MosCon; found out that the two were witty as heck and that Jean didn’t put up with any crap from Jerry — like my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk*, does to me, she pulled the rug out from him whenever he started getting too pretentious or whatever. And we kept in touch after the convention was over and they’d both flown back to Thousand Oaks, where they lived.
Anyway, Point Ultimate (Figure 3), published in paperback in 1959, is about a USA in the future (1999!), that has been conquered by Soviet Russia. Sort of like Red Dawn, but where the Russians win. They keep the Americans docile by use of a tailored virus, so that the subjugated people need a weekly or monthly booster shot to stay alive, thus neatly bypassing the idea of a revolt. (Couldn’t find out who the cover artist was for this paperback.)
Jerry and I really hit it off; we had discussions via mail (snail mail at that time) and telephone about writing as well as life, the universe and stuff like that there. I knew a little about screenwriting, but I also knew that Jerry had written for TV series like GE Theater, Star Trek, Man From Atlantis and others; so he sent me up a box of original scripts from all of those shows so that I could read them and maybe learn something about how a successful script is written. What a thrill! I really, really didn’t want to send them back but, alas, I had to.
Most of you are familiar with Jerry’s main Star Trek script; the episode is called “The Corbomite Maneuver”; but you may not know that as Nathan Butler (one of his pseudonyms) Jerry also wrote and/or co-wrote either the script or the original stories for “Whom Gods Destroy” (with Lee Erwin) and “This Side of Paradise” with D.C. Fontana. Earlier in his career, Jerry was in a writing group called “The Green Hand” which included variously, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan and several others from time to time. When Beaumont fell ill with several Twilight Zone episodes due, Jerry wrote them (“Living Doll,” “Queen of the Nile,” and “The New Exhibit”) to be submitted under Beaumont’s name; Beaumont insisted that Jerry keep half the money. (Jerry was especially proud of “Living Doll”—“My name’s Alicia and I’m going to kill you!” being a line he repeated to me several times. It’s possible this episode was a seed for the later “Chucky” series of films. Jerry also sent me disc copies of books he was working on, and a printout from his dot-matrix printer (Figure 4).
When a couple of friends and I decided to expand the role of New Venture printing to include books as well as a fanzine, we decided that our first book project would be a limited, illustrated edition of Costigan’s Needle, a Sohl book that all of us remembered fondly. We incorporated New Venture Ltd., and all three of us put in $500 as seed money. For those of you who either haven’t read it or don’t remember it, scientist Dr. Costigan invents a space-ship looking device (see Figure 5; this is the SF Book Club edition) that gives a small window into another world. When a religious fanatic interferes with the control panel, a short causes the field the device emits to expand, capturing a number of people within a large radius to be sent, naked and with no artificial aids (glasses, fillings, prosthetics etc.), to another uninhabited Earth in another universe. These people’s task is to recreate civilization and build another device to get back to Earth. We commissioned George Barr to do a wraparound cover and a number of colour interior illustrations, sought out a printer and a binder — we were going to get a big break on printing, because I had installed a number of printers and related machines at the Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, Idaho back when I was working for A-M International (now a subsidiary of A.B. Dick). We had a verbal contract with the head of the new installation that we would pay for paper and ink, and the labour would be free — essentially paid for by a U.S. Government training grant for the Nez Perce tribe.
We started selling copies in advance of printing. Then disaster struck. The New Venture Special Art Issue, which we were counting on to make us enough money for binding of Costigan’s Needle, was held back by the Nez Perce tribe; they had fired their non-native printing head and the new guy said that we couldn’t have our magazines unless we paid for labour as well. We were nearly broke (our seed money had gone to paying author and artist and a few other related expenses); and first one partner pulled out — getting his $500 back and emptying our bank account — then the other partner pulled out, graciously not asking for money, as we had none left anyway. Which left me holding the bag for all those pre-paid copies we were never getting, and for which I still owe people money (I have all the names; as soon as I win the lottery…). Then I moved to Canada; the partner who had gotten his money back actually produced a “limited-edition” art folio and sold a bunch of those, using the interior art, which had been stored in his garage. (I’m not sure whether the covers were there too.) You know what they say: “Poo happens.”
Figure 6 shows the only Sohl paperback cover by a “big-name” artist; The Time Dissolver cover is by Richard Powers (who, despite doing hundreds and hundreds of SF book covers, told my friend Jon Gustafson in a letter that he thought most science fiction was crap). According to Wikipedia, “Sohl tells the story of a man and a woman who wake up one morning to find that they had inexplicably lost all memory of the past eleven years including any memory of how they ever came to meet and become married to each other, and who embark on a quest to find what happened and to trace back these eleven lost years. Aside from the science fiction aspects, the book captures the atmosphere of late 1950s America.”
Jerry also wrote the screenplay, by the way, for the Boris Karloff/Nick Adams film Die, Monster, Die!, which was loosely based on the H. P. Lovecraft story ”The Colour Out of Space,” the book from which was made an original TV movie called Night Slaves, and a number of other books including non-genre works, under his name, Nathan Butler, and other pseudonyms. He also wrote for The Outer Limits (a rather forgettable episode starring Adam West and a “sand shark” gimmick). Don’t listen to what Gary Westfahl says (because I disagree with him rather vehemently, I won’t provide a link here; if you want, you can Google him) about Jerry being a “juvenile” writer and unsuitable for the “…adult medium of TV.” (Huh? What planet is this guy from?).
I and many people still like Jerry’s writing. In fact, the Writers’ Guild gave him an award for his screenwriting (Figure 7). No, Jerry was not one of the major writers of science fiction, either in books or in TV/movies, but he was at the very least workmanlike as a writer. And he was very proud of his nonfiction books about how to cheat at chess and bridge: Underhanded Bridge and Underhanded Chess. So despite all the nay-sayers, many people, myself included, remember his science fiction fondly; I, personally, remember Jerry the man the same way. His books are now, courtesy of his estate, available in eBook formats from ReAnimus.com. (To give you an example of what kind of guy Jerry was, he sent me a box with a signed copy of every paperback book he’d published. He didn’t personally dedicate them, because, he said, “If you want to sell them, a personally inscribed copy is worth less.” That’s the kind o’ guy Jerry was.) In fact, John D. MacDonald wrote something that pretty much describes Jerry’s and my friendship: “A friend is someone to whom you can say pretty much any dang fool thing that comes into your mind.”
* LAST WORDS: Today (Friday the 22nd) and tomorrow (July 23rd, midnight, EDT) are the VERY LAST CHANCE you have to vote for the Aurora Awards in 2016 if you’re a Canadian or someone who lives in Canada! Both Lynne and I (see link above) are up for the Aurora, but whether you vote for us or not, it’s important that you get out and vote! This is your chance to have a say in who gets this important Canadian SF/F award! Remember, it’s only $10 to join CSFFA, and that $10 (until midnight tomorrow night) will get you all the nominated works! So check this link, Canadians, and vote!
I’d love to hear what you think about this column. I have a few regulars who comment frequently, but I’m sure there are some of you who have things to say that you haven’t said — so go ahead and register (if you haven’t already), then put a comment here, okay? Or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I also like discussions about what I’ve said, so let’s start one. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to comment, either. As always, my opinion is my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!
Thank you very much indeed for your great article!
I’m a French fan of Mr Sohl’s Costigan’s Needle (translated into French as “L’invention du Professeur Costigan”) which I read as a teen many many years ago. I was looking for more information about Jerry Sohl and was lucky to find your excellent post on Amazing Stories!
Thank you, Pax Son. (Merci!) Jerry was a great guy and I miss his quick wit. I felt it was a great privilege to be his friend.