H A R L E S
A R N E S S :|
I Did it For the Money
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, December 1998)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Charles Leonard Harness was born December 29, 1915 in Colorado City TX. After an abortive stint at Texas Christian University, studying to be a preacher, he moved on to George Washington University in Washington DC, where he received a B.S. degree in 1942, and a law degree in 1946. He married in 1938, and he and wife Nell have a daughter and a son. He worked as a mineral economist for the US Bureau of Mines, 1941-47, then became a patent attorney, first with American Cyanamid (1947-1953), then with W.R. Grace & Co. (1953-1981). His first story, ‘‘Time Trap’’, appeared in Astounding (8/48), and he went on to write a number of well-regarded SF stories, many involving future trials and patent attorneys. A series of patent office spoofs/stories (some co-written with Theodore L. Thomas) appeared under the pseudonym Leonard Lockhard, beginning with ‘‘Improbable Profession’’ (Astounding 9/52). His first published novel, Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), first appeared as a 1949 novella, and was expanded in 1953. The Rose, his most famous novella, appeared as a book in 1966. It was followed by Wagnerian space opera The Ring of Ritornel (1968), Wolfhead (1978), The Catalyst (1980), Firebird (1981), The Venetian Court (1982), Redworld (1986), Krono (1988), Lurid Dreams (1990), and Lunar Justice (1991). His short fiction has been collected in An Ornament to His Profession (1998), which includes not only ‘‘The Rose’’ but a new novella as well.
‘‘Back in Fort Worth, Texas in 1925, I encountered my first copy of Amazing Stories. Great big magazine, beautiful big type, wonderful illustrations by Frank Paul. I was ten years old, and this was just inspiration beyond heaven and earth! Some wonderful stories in there too. We were very poor. I had no money. But somehow or other, I got enough issues to get started reading the serialized ‘‘Doc’’ Smith Skylark of Space in 1928. My brother had Weird Tales and some other magazines that published what today we call science fiction before Amazing, certainly long before Astounding. Weird Tales was mostly fantasy and horror. I’d sneak a look at his copy, though I wasn’t supposed to. He was nine years older.
‘‘From that time, I really never lost touch with the field. I worked for the government during the war, and I recall getting Astounding, which was coming out then. Van Vogt had a few stories, fantastic things! The quality was so far above the common run, it was just amazing. So of course I love him.
‘‘With Flight Into Yesterday, I had no idea where I was going when I started on Chapter One. Today they’d kill you if you had such a conceited idea that you could sit down and write anything saleable without knowing the end, but I didn’t even know the middle! I didn’t know Chapter Three! But it had to be done quickly. We needed money right away. We were being evicted from our little cottage which we rented out in the country, and housing was very tight in Stamford. We needed about $600 to pay the extra rent for a house. So I had to write this thing in two, three months at the outside.
‘‘Every Friday, I would sneak off to my desk and open a folder of patents or an invention description I was supposed to be working on, but no sir! I was writing Flight Into Yesterday, which I called ‘Toynbee 22.’ I am a great admirer of Arnold Toynbee, who wrote The Study of History. He had gone up through 21 civilizations, so I said, ‘This is an advance over that.’ It’s when they move the minute hand on the atomic clock closer and closer, to maybe about 11:58. In those days, I had hopes for civilization. Now I’m not so sure. But at least we can dream.
‘‘I had modeled it on Van Vogt. He was my hero - still is. I’d analyzed his work, and I thought I knew how he did it, so this followed that formula. For example, I used the tense meeting of the principals, where they decide whether one of them is going to die before the thing breaks up. That was a lot of fun.
‘‘I wrote ‘The Rose’ when I was working for Cyanamid, 1950 or thereabout. I did several shorter things for F&SF. And I did one really wonderful thing, just terrific: ‘Improbable Profession’. It was a science article about oddities in patent prosecution. This was in Astounding, and was picked up by the University of St. Louis Law School and used as part of their teaching material! ‘‘As far as striking gold for raw material for stories, that lab was absolutely wonderful! The people, the projects.... Everything had to be disguised slightly, but it was a gold mine. We made wonderful friends there. There was one man I wrote a whole book about later on, The Catalyst. At least I got that off my chest! It was a good eulogy for him. He died right about that time, and the book cursed the company, which I hadn’t really intended to do, but you’ve got to have a Bad Guy.
‘‘The Catalyst is still my favorite among my books. The man in that, his real name was Johnstone Sonnopp Mackay. I call him John Serane in the book. I loved that guy as a brother. He reminded me a great deal of my own brother, who died when I was 16, in 1932, of two inoperable brain tumors. Johnny Mackay was a maverick. He simultaneously feared and detested the American Cyanamid management. He invented when he was not supposed to invent, and failed to invent when he was supposed to. He did everything the company didn’t want him to do! He kept the Patent Department busy all by himself. He was a wonderful teacher, a role model. We had poker parties at his house with the other chemists. And that book was about him. He read the manuscript before he died.
‘‘Right now, I’m not trying to do anything significant. I’m attempting, with might and main, simply to enjoy life. In that quest, I’ve actually gone back to school. Last year, I took a semester course in microbiology, and that led to a couple of stories published in Analog. These things were a hell of a lot of fun: no responsibilities, no deadlines to meet! And a new area to explore, which I love to do.
‘‘All knowledge is expanding. It’s expanding not merely exponentially, but the exponent goes off into the fourth or fifth dimension now! I guess somebody uses it. Somebody makes the information with some purpose in mind. But I have a feeling a lot of it is simply getting lost and will have to be rediscovered, like Mendel with his sweetpeas. I got my B.S. in Chemistry in 1942, over 60 years ago, and chemistry has changed a lot. Of course, you keep up a little bit. You read the literature, Scientific American. Physics is tougher. I sent my agent a little story about neutrinos. When I went to school, they didn’t teach neutrinos in chemistry. It’s been fun to run down on the Web. Back at school, I also finished a semester in astronomy - a fascinating subject. My professor was talking about tracking down neutrinos from the sun, and he said, ‘We are finding only 60% of the neutrinos that we should. Is the sun going to die? I don’t think our sun is. I think they are just not detecting all the neutrinos they should be able to catch.’ But there’s the story idea, and there’ll be others after that, I hope. It’s impossible just to sit back and watch the commercials on TV all day. I’ve got to do something.''
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