May 17 2013 2:00pm
Talking With Tom: A Conversation Between Tom Doherty and Gregory Benford

Talking With Tom Doherty Greg Benford

Who better to interview a living legend than another living legend? “Talking with Tom” is the third installment of a series in which Tor publisher Tom Doherty chats with one of the many authors and industry icons whose careers he influenced. Previous installments covered conversations with L.E. Modesitt Jr.and Harriet McDougal.

Please enjoy this fascinating and wide-ranging conversation between Tom Doherty and award-winning science fiction author Gregory Benford.

DOHERTY: Several of your works are collaborations with other authors.

Talking With Tom Doherty Gregory BenfordBENFORD: That’s right. My latest novel is Bowl of Heaven with Larry Niven. I’ve written novels with David Brin and William Rotsler and Gordon Eklund. And even with my own twin brother—well, not a novel, but stories.

DOHERTY: Is it easier or harder than writing solo?

BENFORD: I think most readers don’t understand that writing is a lonely business. You sit alone in a room, staring at a screen all day long. That’s fine if you’re an introvert, and many SF writers are, but it’s not so great if you’re not, like me.

I come out of the scientific culture. I’m a professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine. Scientific literature, unlike the rest of academic literature, is totally collaborative: the majority of all scientific papers are collaborations. That’s easily checked. Among the genres, the only genre that has a high number of collaborations is science fiction. It’s not true of fantasy, certainly not true of the mysteries, Westerns, romance.

DOHERTY: Why do you think that is?

BENFORD: Science fiction is an expression of the scientific technical culture. In 1926, the first science fiction magazine ever, Amazing Stories, was published by a consortium of magazines totally devoted to the hot new technology that could change your life: radio.

It’s a cultural phenomenon in that the portion of the culture, which, let’s face it, folks, drives modern times—science and technology—had no really heavy‑duty voice in literature until this last century. Therefore, science fiction manifests the cultural strategies and habits of the scientific and technical culture.

Part of that is that, just like in science, ideas are very important in SF. You can’t publish a scientific paper based on style and story‑telling ability. However much we want to love Ray Bradbury, science fiction is driven mostly by ideas, big new ideas, worked out in colorful detail.

Ideas are what can be collaborated on more readily, so when Larry and I were writing Bowl of Heaven, we would talk almost every day on the phone, we’d get together, have a few drinks, kick around ideas. That’s a lot of fun—and it is very much like scientific collaboration.

I’ve written, gosh, over a hundred papers that were collaborative alone in science. The others were mostly mathematical physics, which you can plausibly do by yourself. In experimental physics it’s almost impossible to do an experiment all by yourself these days. I ran an experimental laboratory for over two decades.

So you see a clear reflection of scientific culture in science fiction, and that’s the reason that we see so many collaborations. Plus the fact that writers get lonely. I bet artists do, too.

DOHERTY: I think sharing ideas and exploring separate areas of knowledge are important to collaborations in science fiction too.

BENFORD: They are. Specifically, David Brin and I published Heart of the Comet on the very week that Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky. We did so by deliberate design. I had intended to write this novel for years, but I was running a high‑energy density laboratory at UC Irvine at the time and I got behind. I had this friend, David Brin, who’d recently come into the field and who’d done his thesis at UC San Diego on comets.

Talking With Tom Doherty Greg BenfordSo I said “David, tell you what, we’re going to write this novel. Here’s the rough outline. Let’s work on this further.” We spent, I think, six weeks just working on the outline. “You take this character, I’ll take the other, and the third one we collaborate on. We write them separately, so each chapter from a different point of view sounds different because of our different styles. Let’s write this damn thing right away.”

We wrote the whole novel in less than half a year. We got a contract with Bantam and said, “We’re going to deliver this novel in the fall and Halley’s Comet appears in late January.” They said, “Oh, we can handle that.” And so we turned the book in, and bam, it was out there. It sold an enormous number of copies. We’re the only people that had a novel about the next apparition of Halley’s Comet and the first human expedition to it. Which, of course, goes wrong. You know, my favorite definition of a story is a wonderful idea in which something goes wrong.

That’s another reason to collaborate: you have different strengths.

DOHERTY: I also love the idea of your collaboration with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven, where you built this Big Smart Object, kind of from Larry’s Big Dumb Object, which went from Ringworld into the Bowl.

BENFORD: Right. You see, the Ringworld is at least nominally stable. It just spins around, around a star. Turns out Larry only realized after he published the novel that it’s actually unstable: if you kick it to the side, it falls into the star. Still, nominally, it’s a Big Dumb Object, like any building is a Big Dumb Object, right?

But something elementary like walking is inherently unstable. We walk on two legs, which is essentially unique in the biosphere, aside from birds. We fall forward and then catch ourselves, right? Failure to catch yourself means you do a face plant.

So I said: what about an object that has to be managed the whole time? You can hear Larry expound on this in a talk we did at Google. He explains that the reason why Ringworld is uninhabited and why you don’t know who built it is because he’d only written for a few years and didn’t know how to handle the whole problem of the Builders and the artifact.

So I thought, “Well, yeah, but what if you take up that problem, Larry? We’re older now, maybe we can do it.” So, the Bowl has to be managed all the time because it’s completely unstable, because its driving nexus is an entire star. The whole system is not only unstable, but it’s going somewhere, which is the point of this construction. The Ringworld’s not going anywhere, but the Bowl is. So I thought, “This is a fun idea. How come the Bowl is going somewhere? Where is it going? Why, when it’s discovered by humans, is it going where we’re going?”

After I did all the physics and calculations, I thought it would be more fun to write this with one of my friends. Larry Niven is one of my oldest friends, so I said, “Larry, here’s a couple of pages, a description, a crude sketch. What do you think?” He said “Let’s do it.” So we do it. And it’s actually been a lot of fun, because you can kick ideas around. We tend to specialize somewhat: Larry’s really good at aliens. He’s better than I am at plotting. I do the astrophysics and so forth, and I write all the sex scenes.

DOHERTY: I’m really fascinated by how it works. How do you magnetically compress the force of a star to form a drive mechanism?

BENFORD: Well, the Bowl is actually mostly a mirror, so there’s this big zone of mirrors that reflect the sunlight back right on the spot. That spot happens to be the pole of the rotating star.

DOHERTY: The rim is a mirror, right? And inside the Bowl it’s Earthlike?

BENFORD: Yeah, inside of the Bowl is a habitat. All of this flux of light falls on this little point and creates a big hot spot. We know stars like our Sun have strong magnetic fields. The strongest magnetic fields in the solar system by far are on the Sun. So, somehow this contrivance ends up blowing off the hot spot in a long jet, which is confined by magnetic fields.

I’ve published a lot of papers on astrophysical jets. Those we know are confined by magnetic fields. That’s why there are jets—hundreds of them we’ve now seen in the night sky—that are a million light years long. They’re huge, bigger than galaxies. They’re the biggest coherent structures in the whole universe.

So I said, what about a really superior intelligence that says: I can make these jets work. Here’s a worked‑out example of what you can use them for. The jet drives the whole system. It moves the star, and the Bowl, gravitationally attracted, follows the star. There are magnetic fields coming from the jet that interact with the magnetic fields in the bowl, which is spinning per centrifugal gravity, so you can live on it. And the whole enormous machine is moving through the sky. Obviously, it wasn’t built in a weekend, and it’s very old. So who runs it? And why?

DOHERTY: We don’t know that yet.

BENFORD: No, and you’ll find out in Volume Two. Volume One is full of these trap doors, where you say, “Oh, okay I understand that,” but you don’t. Even the people who live on the Bowl don’t know. Well, they’re not actually people either; they’re very large, really smart birds.

DOHERTY: Were they descendants of dinosaurs?

BENFORD: Yes and no. Nobody’s a descendant of anything anymore, right, over a scale of a hundred million years? Oh, I gave something away.

DOHERTY: Okay. Fair enough.

BENFORD: No, they are something like it. They’re very big. They’re very interested in us, these little primates. They call themselves “the folk.” Most primitive tribes call themselves “the people,” you know. They think we don’t have any ability to convey anything. “They don’t have feather displays. They can’t convey all these subtleties, because all they’ve got is this little face. That’s really hopeless. That’s what animals do. We have all this elaborate color plumage. Real social subtleties.” Therefore, they regard us as a kind of very slow, stupid people, who just came by on a little starship. And the big question is, are they useful to us or should we just kill them all?


BENFORD: Guess who wins. It’s fun to put this whole thing together, because Larry loves this kind of thing and so do I. I’ll kick an idea at him, he kicks it back, and it’s got something else on it. He puts spin on the ball.

DOHERTY: Seems like a natural extension for the two of you.

BENFORD: It is, actually. I’ve known Larry Niven since I met him in 1965. I asked him why he was writing science fiction and he said, “Because it’s fun.” When I asked if he wanted to do it for a living, he explained he’s from the Doheny family. You know, Doheny Beach, the Doheny oil fields. It was a Doheny who discovered oil in Los Angeles at the La Brea Tar Pits. Larry doesn’t need to write for a living. All he has to do is breathe.

DOHERTY: Well, I’m awful glad he had the desire to do what he did, because I’ve really enjoyed a lot of what he’s done over the years.

BENFORD: I have, too. He has an enormous fan following. They keep pestering him to write a stand‑alone novel, but he actually likes collaborations so much he prefers to work with other people. As I said, writing is a lonely business. It truly is.

DOHERTY: I remember how much I loved The Mote in God’s Eye.

BENFORD: Yes. It was full of imaginative ideas. So was Footfall.

DOHERTY: I think that was his first major bestseller.

BENFORD: No, the first was Lucifer’s Hammer.

DOHERTY: No. The Mote in God’s Eye came before Lucifer’s Hammer.

BENFORD: Oh, it was? You’re right. Your editor Bob Gleason edited it.

DOHERTY: Yep, he did. He edited Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer too.

BENFORD: Right. You know, I’d forgotten that Mote came first. Well, there you go. That’s why we have Wikipedia.

DOHERTY: I knew it because I was selling them in those days. I’d just left Simon & Schuster to be publisher of paperbacks at Grosset. The Vice President of Sales, a guy by the name of Charlie Williamson, knew I loved science fiction and fantasy. He gave me the manuscript of The Mote in God’s Eye. I told him, “Boy, this is a major winner.” He was an old friend, and he took my word for it and went out and really promoted it.

BENFORD: Right. Good judgment. If only they could make the movie.

DOHERTY: I think hopefully I was a help.

BENFORD: I’d like to see big extravaganza novels like that made into films, instead of the stuff Hollywood directors write that sounds like a cartoon version of something that should have been better. I mean, look at Avatar.

DOHERTY: Well, we’ve got Ender’s Game coming up.

BENFORD: Is that actually going to be made?

DOHERTY: Oh, absolutely. It’s mostly finished. Harrison Ford is in it. The kid that played Hugo, he’s Ender.

BENFORD: Oh, well, that’s terrific news. I live in Laguna Beach and I didn’t know any of this. Wow.

DOHERTY: Yep. Next November. It’s Lionsgate Summit’s next major event. They’ve done Twilight, they’re doing The Hunger Games, and their next big thing is going to be Ender’s Game. They’re going to make a major fuss over it at San Diego Comic-Con.

BENFORD: That’s really good news. It has the classic shape of a science fiction novel, starts small, opens out. A blossoming flower of a narrative.

DOHERTY: And such a natural for a movie.

BENFORD: Yeah. Makes you wonder why it takes so long, doesn’t it? It will be 30 years, almost?

DOHERTY: We published it in ’85.

BENFORD: Right. I know, came out the same year my novel with you, Artifact, came out. Ancient history.


After this, the conversation turned to the start of Gregory Benford’s career, including his work in SF fandom, his first professional sale (the short story “Stand-In” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), and a poem about Isaac Asimov and cryonics.


BENFORD: My brother and I—I’m an identical twin—helped put on the first science fiction con in Germany. When our father was rotated out of commanding a division there to command the National Guard out of Dallas, we found the science fiction fans in Dallas and helped put on the first SF con in Texas. The field was so small then that you could know everyone, perhaps even too well.

DOHERTY: I remember when we used to say we read everything that was published in the field.

BENFORD: You could plausibly do it. It meant maybe ten hard backs in a year. It was a small but vibrant community, and now it’s a giant mega-industry. It’s really striking how this genre has started to dominate the way we think about the future.

DOHERTY: When did you start writing?

BENFORD: I started writing science fiction just because I liked to write. I had already written something like a million words in fanzines. A million words for free.

DOHERTY: Wow. A million words.

BENFORD: Then, when I was in graduate school, I subscribed to the science fiction magazines, or more likely I bought them off newsstands when you could do that. The latest issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction had a poem about a unicorn and a UNIVAC. The brand new editor, Ed Ferman, set up a contest for a thousand‑word story with a unicorn and a UNIVAC in it, under the theory that, with that much constraint there’s probably just one good story in the world, right?

So I had read that the night before and I was sitting in a second-year graduate school course on statistical mechanics. My strategy was always to read ahead in the book, do most of the problems before I came to the lecture, and spend my real time working on research. That actually saved me a lot of time. It’s one of the reasons I got a doctorate in three‑and‑a‑half years.

Anyway, I’m sitting there, very bored by the lecture because I already knew it pretty much, and suddenly I had this idea about a cocktail party in San Francisco in which everybody comes in costume. The protagonist comes dressed as Zeus, and there’s this woman who comes dressed as a unicorn. Turns out it’s not a costume. I wrote about 500 words sitting in that class. I went home in the evening, wrote another 500 words, polished it, sent it into the magazine, and won the contest. They paid $0.02 per word, so I got twenty bucks for this story, and a lifetime subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I still get every month.

DOHERTY: That’s a great story.

BENFORD: And I thought, “Wow, how long has this been going on?” So I started writing short stories and kept on that way. Novels are essentially a series of really well-realized scenes. You write short stories to learn how to do scenes, then you glue them together.

DOHERTY: You wrote some poems, too, didn’t you? Don’t I remember a poem about whether or not Isaac [Asimov] was going to freeze himself?

BENFORD: Oh, right. I wrote a poem called Isaac From the Outside. It’s about this curious phenomenon among science fiction writers , all of whom I knew. People like Heinlein, Cliff Simak, Isaac, Fred Pohl. They wrote novels about cryonics, but none of them had a cryonics contract. Fred Pohl has repeatedly been offered a contract, but he doesn’t want it. So I wrote about this strange contradiction, which I largely don’t understand. Because I have a cryonics contract.

DOHERTY: These were guys that all wrote very positively about onward‑and‑upward and a future that would be worth seeing, but they weren’t in a hurry to see it.

BENFORD: Yeah. Of course it’s a very, very high risk, right? But you’re dead anyway. What’s your downside?

DOHERTY: Exactly, what’s the downside?

BENFORD: And it’s only $100,000 or so. So why don’t you have one, Tom?

DOHERTY: Well, I think if I spent $100,000 on that instead of certain other things, it wouldn’t meet my wife’s priorities.

BENFORD: Well, you can get a contract for your wife, too. I had this same argument to Ray Bradbury. He told me, “No, I don’t want to do that, because of my wife and my daughters. I don’t want to come into a future just all alone.” I told him he could get a contract for them, too. He stopped for a minute and looked at me and said, “No, no, I don’t want to do it.”

Talking With Tom Doherty Greg BenfordI wrote a whole novel called Chiller about this, about the cryonics community in California in the 1990s. It’s my longest novel. The first 80 percent of it is not science fiction; it’s really what the cryonics community is like. They are beset by a serial killer, and through 80 percent of the novel he seems to be winning because he kills every single viewpoint character. It’s like a George R. R. Martin novel: “You like this guy? He’s dead.” But, you know, murder mysteries always assume that, when you kill somebody, the story’s over for them. I realized you can build a different kind of plot, because that’s not true with cryonics. It was fun to write. It took forever.

DOHERTY: Yeah, cryonics is kind of a litmus test for science fiction writers in this regard. If you really believe in the future, don’t you want to at least place a bet on being in it? But who besides you has bought in? Larry Niven? He certainly has the wherewithal.

BENFORD: He certainly does. I know some science fiction writers who do have contracts, but I’m not allowed to say who they are. It’s kind of politically incorrect.

DOHERTY: Why? I would think that’s very politically correct for a science fiction writer: “I believe in what I’m writing.”

BENFORD: You would think so. I don’t know.

DOHERTY: And think of the authentic historical novels you could write.

BENFORD: How about that? Historical novels set a century ago but—

DOHERTY: Authentic.

BENFORD: Right. I have a book out now, The Wonderful Future That Never Was, and the sequel, Terrible Weapons That Never Where, based on Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. We’d agree on all the art, I’d write all the surrounding narrative, and I could turn it in in a month or so. They would ask how I write all of it so fast, and I said: I didn’t have to look anything up. It’s about the Twentieth Century. I used to live there. These are editors who are [Tor Art Director] Irene Gallo’s age. They’d say, “Wow, God, 1990, that was a long time ago.” I mean, I was on a ship coming back from occupied Germany to the US when Sputnik launched. Talk about a surprise.

DOHERTY: But that’s really what got us to the moon.

BENFORD: Exactly. We need competition. Without competition you’re fat and lazy. I went to high school in Dallas. When my brother and I came in for our senior year, there were all these new courses in the curriculum: a year of calculus, a year of college‑level physics. They weren’t there the year before. How come? Because the federal government said, “You’re going to turn on a dime, you’re going to put together a national curriculum, and it’s going to be in schools next year.” They did that in November of 1957, and in September of 1958, there it was. When was the last time the federal government did something like that? It was a complete shock.

DOHERTY: In That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman said that, over the last 40 years, we have reduced our spending on science and technology research by over 60 percent as a percentage of gross domestic product.

BENFORD: That’s really dumb. It’s the seed corn of advanced societies.

DOHERTY: Well, America was always about innovation. From Fulton and the steamboat, through Graham Bell and Edison up through Silicon Valley, what made this a great country was innovation. We have to keep doing it.

BENFORD: We have to. If we don’t do it, they’ll do it to us. To me, one of the signposts of this culture is that communist China has the largest circulation of a science fiction magazine ever, over 400,000 copies a month. They want to reverse engineer what we did. Amazing Stories started out of a magazine publishing group based on radio, and it grew this huge culture, a whole genre, the way Americans build genres like the Western, right? We built that genre out of the real experience. In China they’re publishing this wide circulation, fairly low‑priced science fiction magazine to get people interested in science technology. They see, correctly, that science fiction leads people into these areas and makes them think avant‑garde ideas.

DOHERTY: We have an agreement with NASA now. They will work with us to give us consultation and promotion in classrooms across the country on books that they think will motivate kids to study science and technology, mathematics, the things we need.

BENFORD: Good. That’s a very forward‑reaching attitude. You can’t buy science fiction magazines on a newsstand anywhere anymore, so you might as well get your dose in school. That’s where I started reading science fiction books, in school, in the late forties when I was living in occupied Japan. Rocket Ship Galileo. I’ll never forget it.

DOHERTY: I started reading science fiction in the forties too. I would look every bloody week when they would get deliveries of the new mass market paperbacks in the local store.

BENFORD: Trying to get your fix.

DOHERTY: It was a wire rack, an 84-pocket spinner. I would look, and as soon as I saw one I would buy it.

BENFORD: The merry‑go‑round of literature. I remember: you spin the rack and see what you get. Those were the good old days.


At this point, the discussion turned to how changes in book distribution have affected science fiction as a genre.


DOHERTY: Well, they certainly were days when we had broader distribution than we do now. We have broader publishing now, we publish many more titles, but we don’t put them in impulse locations the way we used to. We need to get back to that.

BENFORD: Impulse locations. That’s a good term. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.

DOHERTY: Well, the problem is we’ve lost the drivers who could put the right book in the right place. Used to be there was a system, among the magazine wholesalers, of book truck drivers, separate from magazine drivers. The book truck drivers were reasonably bright guys who rode a route for many years. They learned that you sold different kinds of books in different neighborhoods. They put the right book in the right place. They were on commission, most of them, and they didn’t want to pull returns, so they had incentive. They sold so many more books, because the right book was in the right place.

BENFORD: Right. Earlier, you invoked the holy name of Louis L’Amour. Those guys are the only reason that I started reading him. He was everywhere. He was striking, and he was nice and compact. He could write a 50,000‑word novel, and then next month do it again.

DOHERTY: That’s where we built new readers. Over the years, surveys would constantly tell you that committed readers went to bookstores. You built new readers in an impulse location, when you satisfied someone often enough that hadn’t intended to buy a book. People went to the supermarket to buy a pound of coffee, they saw something that looked appealing, they bought it, and they were satisfied. So next time they looked at the book rack again, they saw something else and bought it. When you satisfied them often enough, they started going to places that had a broader selection of books. That’s where we got the new readers, because a lot of people, college graduates even, didn’t get around to going to bookstores.

Our problem was at the time, and right up to the end, the coding on the books was UPC, which only says that it’s a book at a price. It doesn’t say what book, not even what publisher or genre or author. We had no knowledge of where things went. Then the wholesale system went from 400‑odd wholesalers in North America to about 50 wholesalers, most of them in outlying areas, and three wholesalers controlling 91 percent of the market.

BENFORD: So the key was those truck drivers.

DOHERTY: Yeah, the truck drivers were putting the right book in the right place, and because of that they were getting much higher sales. Now, since we don’t get the right book in the right place, returns are horrendous. Retail chains have cut back on the space because inventory is badly managed and we’re not producing per square foot. We’re not putting the book where it needs to be.

BENFORD: Because you lack information in the system.

DOHERTY: But, you know, when I suggested once to [American retailer] Kroger that we needed more SKUs…

BENFORD: Which are what?

DOHERTY: Individual select title units. It’s a number in the computer. They basically said, “Well, you want more space in our computer than Procter and Gamble. Do you realize how small Tor is compared to Procter and Gamble?”

BENFORD: Yeah, the real question is: How big is your computer?

DOHERTY: Well, of course this was years ago. Now the computers are much bigger, the systems are much better, and some of the distributors are starting to do it. But we start out with bad information. We don’t have good information in the computers. We’re gradually acquiring it, but we don’t have it yet.

BENFORD: This is, in a way, not surprising. In classical market economics, the deep problem with the Soviet Union was that running things from the top down means that there was no information conveyed by the market, so every step of the production was starved for information. You’re saying that’s what was happening in the book trade. Surely, in this age of buying 20 gigabytes for 20 bucks, there’s got to be some way to attach information and fix that problem.

DOHERTY: Well, there is, but we’re not a big priority for non-book retailers. We have pretty efficient distribution by store in Barnes & Noble. But the problem with places like Kroger is that we’re very likely to have exactly the same book in Vail that we have in a cow town 50 miles away.

BENFORD: Well, you know, I think I see your problem. It’s just information density, conveyed along with the product that all those truck drivers knew.

DOHERTY: Exactly. It’s something that can be fixed, but it’s taking time. Right now, in book selling we’ve gone two steps forward, but this is the one step back.

BENFORD: Right. I remember you telling me that Louis L’Amour would turn up at dawn where the truck drivers came in for coffee. He’d have coffee with them, he’d tell them two or three dirty Western jokes, and they’d go out there and put his books in the front of the rack. That really appealed to me. I wish I’d heard some of the jokes.

DOHERTY: People tend to shop where they shop, and if you don’t have books there, you lose a lot of sales. And the Internet doesn’t replace it. It’s a wonderful place to go for books that you already want and know about, but you can’t discover something new there. It’s, you know, forest and trees.

BENFORD: I sense that in my own life, even at the small level. If I missed an issue of a science fiction magazine, I’d go down to a newsstand and buy it, right? Now I subscribe to every remaining science fiction magazine, because otherwise I’ll never see it. I was in Union Station and then Penn Station and I looked in vain for a science fiction magazine anywhere. I thought, “Hey, it’s the East Coast.” Not so. Not so. Actually, I then donate all those issues all to UC Riverside’s Eaton Collection, which is by far the biggest collection of fantastic literature in the world, with almost 200,000 volumes. Just to be sure they got them.


Finally, the conversation turned to another legendary figure in SF publishing, Betty Ballantine.


DOHERTY: Greg, one of the things that really needs to be done is more recognition for Betty Ballantine. Betty started the first science fiction line. She started the first fantasy line. She did more to popularize science fiction and fantasy than anybody I know. I remember when she hired Judy‑Lynn del Rey and brought her in from Galaxy and taught her books. Judy‑Lynn got a retroactive Hugo after she died. Lester [del Rey] refused it. I think that was kind of bad thinking on Lester’s part, but he said she should have received it while she was alive. Well, Betty is still alive. Let’s give her this award she so much deserves.

BENFORD: I completely agree. As I recall, she’s in her nineties.

DOHERTY: Oh, yes, she’s 93. I talked to her on her birthday.

BENFORD: Remember all the [Richard M.] Powers paintings they used on that line? They’re now enormously expensive collectibles. Those were terrific pieces of art. They pioneered the idea of non-depictive art on paperback covers. I can’t remember any other publisher that did that and used imaginative art with fantastic landscapes and subtle use of color. Then later on they used Leo and Diane Dillon, who justly got a Hugo, here and there and everywhere. They were uniting modern art and sensibilities with the science fiction mentality for the first time. After all, science fiction is supposed to be—and usually is—about the future, so the cover should not look like the past.

Talking With Tom Doherty Gregory Benford

DOHERTY:You know, among other things, I owe Betty because I grew up in sales at Simon & Schuster. I did all the jobs at Pocket Books, from local salesman up through national sales manager. When I was there Ballantine was an independent company, which we distributed. I was their sales manager when they launched the first fantasy line, when they launched Tolkien.

Ian and Betty both were so generous with their time. They taught me things that you wouldn’t normally learn in sales, so I was able to go on to be publisher of paperbacks at Grosset and Dunlap, then at Ace Grosset, and then start Tor. Betty and Ian taught me so much that was so helpful over these years. The whole field owes them, because they did start the first science fiction line and the first fantasy line. They did so much to publicize what we love.


Tom Doherty has been a central figure in genre publishing for decades. He is the founder, President and Publisher of Tom Doherty Associates, which publishes books under the Tor, Forge, Orb, Tor Teen and Starscape imprints. Tor Books, which he founded more than three decades ago, has won the Locus Award for Best Publisher every single year since 1988.

Gregory Benford is the author of more than two dozen science fiction novels, numerous short stories, and countless contributions to SF magazines and fanzines. He is also an educator and astrophysicist, and has been a professor of physics at University of California at Irvine since 1971.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

1 comment
Melissa Shumake
1. cherie_2137
this was excellent. i especially liked learning about how books used to be distributed. hopefully we can get back to that point sometime soon

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