Search This Blog

Sunday 24 August 2014

The Man who Helped to Free the World

I had a nostalgic moment last weekend when I saw Robert Silverberg at the Science Fiction Worldcon, which was held in London this year. In the photograph above, he’s on a panel reminiscing about the two previous London Worldcons in 1957 and 1965. Both were before my time, of course! I first got into Silverberg’s writing in the early seventies, as I mentioned in my piece about Dying Inside a couple of years ago.

I also saw Bob Silverberg at the Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, but the first occasion was way back in 1976 when he was Guest of Honour at the 27th British Science Fiction Convention in Manchester (the cover from one of the progress reports is reproduced below). It made such an impact on me (I was 18 at the time) that I can still recite verbatim at least a dozen things he said! He was only the third “big name” American author I’d seen, after Isaac Asimov (who I met on his visit to England in 1974, as recounted here) and James Blish, who I saw a few months before he died in 1975 (as mentioned in my blog post about Black Easter).

A couple of months after the convention in Manchester, I saw my fourth big name – Harlan Ellison – when he was signing books in the Andromeda Bookstore in Birmingham. I stood there and gawped the whole time he was in the shop (although most of the time I was gawping an the impressively tight and stiff-nipple-revealing T-shirt of Harlan’s nubile female companion... I remember it as if it was yesterday).

It just happens that Robert Silverberg (and Harlan Ellison, too, for that matter) once played a small but important role in changing the course of history. This isn’t as big a deal as it sounds, because this particular change probably would have occurred even if they hadn’t been involved – they just happened to do the right thing at the right time. The incident isn’t as well known as it ought to be, though, and it relates to the subject of censorship which I was talking about last month, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the salient facts.

Robert Silverberg published his first science fiction novel in 1955 at the age of 20, and within a few months he was making a healthy living from writing the genre. Then in the late fifties, disaster struck. The market for SF magazines suddenly collapsed. In the grand scheme of things, this was only a temporary glitch – by the early sixties the old magazine market had been replaced by an equally healthy paperback book market. But in 1958, the only paperbacks were sleazy ones, designed for holding in one hand while the other hand was busy doing something else... and that was the market Bob Silverberg decided to move into.

The publisher Bob wrote for initially was called Bedside Books. But then he had a better idea. He knew that another person on the lookout for new opportunities was a man named William Hamling, who had been the editor of one of the SF magazines that had just folded. Hamling had started a Playboy-style men’s magazine called Rogue, which Harlan Ellison was working on. Using Harlan as an intermediary, Bob suggested to Hamling that he should start up a line of erotic paperback novels to compete with Bedside Books.

Hamling liked the idea, and so in 1959 a brand new imprint called Nightstand Books was born. Its very first title, Love Addict, was written by Robert Silverberg under the pseudonym of Don Elliott.

Silverberg was soon joined by dozens of other authors, who turned Nightstand Books into America’s foremost publisher of sleazy sex-novels. Among them were several other refugees from the world of science fiction, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, Avram Davidson, G. C. Edmondson, John Jakes, Donald E. Westlake... and Harlan Ellison, of course. The resulting books weren’t pornography in the modern sense, because the United States had very strict obscenity laws at the time. They were erotic only in the sense that they hinted at sexual activities without describing them in explicit detail.

The world-changing drama began in 1965, when – despite the softness of the material – the authorities in New York decided to prosecute a news vendor for selling obscene materials. The two books in question were both published by Nightstand – Lust Pool and Shame Agent (these weren’t written by Silverberg or any of the other well-known authors, who had moved back to SF by this time).

From the prosecution’s point of view, the case was a disaster beyond their worst nightmares. William Hamling was wealthy enough to afford the best defence lawyers, and they took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. The latter merely pointed out what had been obvious to an impartial observer all along, that any form of censorship is unconstitutional – a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. As the presiding judge observed: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” (which is pretty much what I said last month, about David Cameron’s attempts to reintroduce censorship in the UK).

The end result of the Nightstand case, in 1967, was the complete abolition of America’s anti-obscenity laws. Far from banning the softcore fluff they had targeted, the New York authorities succeeded in opening the floodgates to genuine, hardcore pornography. To quote from the main source I’ve used for this article, an excellent book with the dubious title of Young Lusty Sluts: “Every aspect of human sexuality was covered in every combination of gender and colour, with whole families, their pets and assorted farm animals thrown in for good measure.”

And it all started when the 24-year old Robert Silverberg had a money-making idea in 1959.

No comments: