As a reminder, for readers in the Burlington, Vt. area, I'll be presenting a paper for the upcoming 75 Years of Science Fiction conference this weekend, April 27th at UVM. The paper will be on the evolutionary roots of the genre, and draws heavily upon this column!
The Golden Age of Science Fiction was more than just an explosion of fiction and outlets for a new generation of authors: It was a complicated meeting place for this new generation of authors— fans who had grown up with the genre from an early age, now trying their hands at writing, editing and publishing. Particularly in New York City, an entire generation of authors met one another. When looking at the life of Judith Merril, it's easy to see just how interconnected fandom was, and how important these connections and collaborations were on the genre.
Judith Merril was born Judith Grossman on January 21st, 1923 in Boston, Mass., spending much of her childhood on the move. By the time she reached the sixth grade, she had attended nine different schools, between New York, Boston and Philadelphia. It was far from a happy childhood: The family fell on hard times by the end of the 1920s when her father, Samuel (Shlomo), was stricken with Encephalitis, and after the death of her younger brother, Simcha. Broken and penniless, Shlomo committed suicide in 1929 when Judy was 6 years old.
As a teenager, Judy began dating Joe Smith who was an organizer for the American Student Union, part of the Youth Communist League. A self-described socialist and Zionist, she was wary of Stalin's policies in the Soviet Union, and would eventually identify herself as a Trotskyite.
In 1940, Judy married Danny Zissman, a fellow Trotskyite whom she met at a 4th of July picnic in Central Park. It was through Dan that Judy was first introduced to science fiction, and she fell deeply in love with the genre. Dan was drafted by the US Navy in 1942 after the United States entered World War II. Working odd jobs to make ends meet, and a new mother, Judy started writing as she followed her husband from post to post across the United States. By 1944, the Navy learned of Dan's political activities and pulled him out of training school for an overseas deployment, where he volunteered for an assignment on a submarine. Judy, with her daughter Merril, moved back to New York City, where she met the Futurians, a left-leaning political offshoot of the Greater New York Science Fiction Club.
"The Futurians were extraordinary people....They each had their own visions about the future; it was coming, and they were thinking about it better than anybody else." Judy described her new friends in glowing terms. The group included a wide range of people who would become major figures in the science fiction and fantasy genres: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl and Donald A. Wollheim, amongst others. Merril became close friends with a number of them, one of the only women present in the group, alongside Virginia Kidd and Elsie Wollheim. Many of the authors wrote for the pulps, and Merril started writing stories for similar magazines. In February 1945, Judy wrote to Dan, informing him that she sold her first story to Doc Lowndes for Crack Detective Magazine.
On her own, Judy continued to write, occasionally selling stories to magazines or printing them in fanzines, to help make ends meet, and found a job as a ghost writer in 1945 in the city. By this point, the Futurians had begun to experience some internal turmoil. Judy found herself at odds with Donald and Elsie Wollheim, as well as John Michael, when they tried to isolate her from other members due to her politics. The members of the Futurians rallied around Judy, and voted them out of the group. As a result, the entire fan group disintegrated.
The end of the Futurians prompted Merril to go outside of her circle of friends. In 1946, she wrote a letter to Theodore Sturgeon (condemned by the Futurians as one of Campbell's writers, a rival camp who published with Astounding Science Fiction), expressing her enjoyment of one of his stories. The two corresponded and met, prompting Judy to consider writing seriously. She adopted the pen name Judith Merril in 1947 and began writing short stories. By this point, Judy's marriage with Dan had become strained and she left; the two would be divorced the following year. Following her correspondence with Sturgeon, the two saw one another for a short while before they went their separate ways.
The next couple of years were huge for Merril's career: In 1946, Frederik Pohl returned home from his overseas assignment following the war. According to Merril, her editor Doc Lowndes brought him over to her apartment on West 19th Street, where they spent much of the night drinking. Lowndes was able to make it out of the apartment, but Pohl didn't, passing out on her couch. The two hit it off, and in 1948, the two were married. Pohl had become a major figure in the New York science fiction scene as both an editor and a writer, and his influence aided Merril's work. She began taking writing very seriously, and she found an agent, Scott Meredith, who put her to work writing for sports pulp magazines. The year before, she had attended her first convention, where she met Editor John Campbell, who bought her first story, “That Only a Mother,” for the June 1948 issue of Astounding. Finally, she landed a job with Bantam Books as an editor for their mystery novels.
Flush with success and connections, Merril began writing a novel of her own, as she found the time between a busy job, young child and new husband. She made some small jumps forward with the book, but ultimately left it aside while she dealt with other priorities. The book lay untouched until she was approached by Doubleday’s science fiction editor, Walter Bradbury, who had heard about the story, and offered to take a look at it. She was reluctant at first, citing work and a lack of time to work on finishing it. He pointed out that with an advance, she’d be able to devote time to the book, and shortly after reading it, made her an offer. When she asked her boss for a leave of absence, Ian Ballantine told her that she was to quit: She was born to be a writer, not an editor, and Merril left Bantam, never to work a full-time job for the rest of her life.
The novel, Shadow of the Earth, was published in 1951, and her anthology Shot in the Dark was released shortly thereafter. Her novel was critically successful, garnering a review from the New York Times, and didn’t make much, but her anthology sold out. She continued writing. In 1950, she met Cyril Kornbluth, a friend of Pohl’s, and the pair began to collaborate on a story that Judy had started, working by mail, writing and re-writing each other’s sections. Soon, they had a novel, and Frederik was able to help them get it into the hands of Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, who bought the novel and serialized it as Outpost Mars in May-July in 1951.
Merril’s career as a science fiction author was well under way, gaining critical and commercial attention from readers and fellow authors by the middle of the 1950s. Her marriage with Pohl wouldn’t last much longer, and the two eventually separated. The opening years of Merril’s work as a writer are notable for her rapid rise within the genre: Her start as a pulp author and her move into the book publishing industry are an excellent way to look at how the market was changing in a post-war America. The magazine markets were beginning to constrict, but the paperback business was primed to explode, and Merril was at the forefront of the trend, and had all the right skills and connections to make a huge impact later in her life.