By Bud Webster
"Past Masters." That's a pretty generic title for a column that features tiny slices of obscure science fiction history. Why that title? It's glib, it's inclusive without being specific, and it permits me to do pretty much what I want to do. As a rule, this is an advantage.
Sometimes, however, it's necessary to do that which I'd just as soon not have to do, as is the case with this installment. This time, I'm going to use the rubric of "Past Master" in a very real and particular sense: to venerate the recently deceased author, Nelson Slade Bond, who left us only four days ago as I write this.
I'll make no attempt at objectivity this time around, no effort to View Askance From Lofty Heights. Nelson was a friend, and he deserves better than that from me. His passing, although certainly not unexpected at the age of 98(!), came not even a week ago, and it still hurts. I'll run down the usual information, of course, but this isn't an examination of a writer I've heard of and/or studied, but a tribute to a man that I knew.
I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, where Nelson and Betty Bond spent most of their married lives, raising two sons. One of them, Kitt, even dated the younger of my two sisters a few times. And as a reader from a very early age, I was at least peripherally aware that there was an AUTHOR in my home town, even though I'd never met him. I knew he was active in local dramatics, as was I while in high school, but our paths didn't cross.
Skip ahead a few years, several moves, and a couple of semesters of college in Richmond. I became active in fandom, attending conventions and cranking out my own fanzine, which I traded with whoever would trade back. At some point, this brought me to the attention of a nascent fan organization which called itself the Nelson Bond Society, which published a clubzine called "The Jinnia Clan Journal" — a reference to Nelson's Meg and Dayv stories, which took place in a far-future America. They invited me to join, and I did, partly because when one first encounters fandom after a lifetime of segregation from the mainstream one tends to join everything, but mostly because I had become more familiar with Nelson's stories in the intervening years and looked forward to finally meeting him.
In 1974, the WorldCon was held in Washington, DC, and I was told that Nelson might attend. Now, bear in mind that I still had not actually met the man; all I had to go on were rather crude portraits the JCJ "staff artist" did of him, which showed an older man with a neat van Dyke. When I saw someone fitting this description at the "Meet the Pros" party at DisCon II, I approached him and asked if he was Nelson Bond. Nodding gravely, the gentleman in question replied, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am L. Sprague de Camp."
For the next fifteen minutes or so, de Camp alternated between regaling me with stories of the old days when he'd known Nelson, and asking me questions about what Nelson was doing now. "Christ," I recall him saying when I hastily apologized for the mistaken identity and explained. "I didn't even know Nelson was still alive!"
This was to be a typical response by other SF writers when I mentioned Nelson to them: story after story about him, and surprise that he was still around.
Nelson's first SF story was "Down the Dimensions" in the April 1937 Astounding, but this followed two years of humor, romance and sports stories. In fact, for the first four years of his writing career, the vast majority of his sales were to the sports pulps. His final story, "Proof of the Pudding," was published in the October/November, 1999 Asimov's by direct invitation of then-editor Gardner Dozois after Nelson's well-deserved (and superbly performed) stint as SFWA's Author Emeritus in 1998. Aside from one other story, "Pipeline to Paradise" in the Roger Zelazny-edited anthology Wheel of Fortune (AvoNova 1995), it was his first publication since 1958.
And that is all the faux-academic bibliographica I will impose on you this time.
I did, finally, meet Nelson in 1975, when he agreed to be interviewed for my fanzine and invited me to visit him and Betty. Betty brought sandwiches and beer (Canadian, of course), and I asked this fascinating man every question I could think of about his career in the pulps, his interaction with other writers, and his life-long love for antiquarian books while a cassette recorder whirred quietly in the middle of the table.
Among the bits and pieces of his writer's life that he passed along to me that afternoon was the advice he'd given a young Isaac Asimov when he'd boasted of selling his first story in 1939. Nelson, by then a seasoned vet of four years and more than four dozen stories, said, "Son, anybody can sell one story. It's the second one that proves you're a writer." He gave me the same bit of advice decades later after I sold my first yarn.
Harlan Ellison asked him to contribute a story to The Last Dangerous Visions after one of the younger Bond Society members wrote him saying that the book wouldn't be complete without one, and so Nelson wrote his first fiction in almost two decades: "Pipeline to Paradise." When the anthology still hadn't appeared after six years, Nelson withdrew the story with a sharp letter to editor Ellison. This caused a breach between the two men, one that was healed in September of 2001 when a group of ex-Bond Society members and others paid tribute to Nelson and Betty. After a sumptuous lunch (with a special cake depicting the cover of Nelson's first book), letters from various writers, editors and publishers who had known and worked with Nelson were read by those present. In part, the letter from Ellison read:
There have been few writers in my well-read life whose work I've been more in love with than yours. I came upon you when you were in fullest flower. I was in high school, 1950 I think, and I was a reader of Blue Book magazine. And it was there that I came across "And Lo! The Bird," which I suspect I've reread more than a hundred times; suspect I've read it aloud to high school and writing classes possibly half a hundred; and don't suspect, but KNOW, I've recommended it to readers MORE than a hundred times.
Nelson positively beamed when this letter was read, and all differences between the two men were forgotten.
Nelson and I shared a love of books, not only as repositories of information, but as artifacts as well. He was an antiquarian, with a general knowledge of books and their history that I could never equal in a lifetime. My interests were more specialized, and I was thrilled on those occasions when he would call me or send e-mail asking about a specific SF or fantasy title with which he was unfamiliar.
His library was, if not all-encompassing, certainly extensive and eclectic. Among other things, he had a nearly complete collection of Cabell, and any number of signed first editions, which he would lovingly pull down and share with those he trusted to handle them. He had been close friends with Ray Bradbury, and among the treasures on that particular shelf was a copy of the asbestos-bound edition of Fahrenheit 451, one of only 200 copies, and the first edition of The Illustrated Man which Bradbury not only warmly inscribed, but in which he drew a sketch of the title character.
Nelson's catalogs were witty and frequently contained hoax titles, such as the autobiography of one Irene Wanda, who married first Howard Hughes and then Henry Kissinger, resulting in the title I. Wanda Hughes Kissinger Now. They were also sprinkled by bits of light, if perfectly scansioned, verse which were tied to specific books, such as this from one of his 1970s lists, referring to a H. P. Lovecraft book, and titled "Nyarlathotep is Petohtalrayn Spelled Backwards:"
I never subscribed to the Cthulhu cult.
I certainly don't denounce it,
But the reason I never joined it is
Because I cannot pronounce it.
Over the years, Nelson was warm, generous with his time and potables, incisive and insightful when reading one of my stories before I sent it out ("Remember," he told me more than once. "Great stories aren't written, they're re-written."). He was both funny and witty, and would laugh as hard at my jokes as I did at his.
He could also be acerbic and stern, as any number of people around him (including me) discovered when there were disagreements, but in every case, he was the epitome of an old-fashioned gentleman. I regret now that I didn't call him more often, but as has been pointed out to me, had I called him once a week I'd feel badly that I didn't call twice a week.
Over the years, a lot of Nelson's stories were rescued from potential obscurity by anthologists who knew good stuff when they saw it. "Conqueror's Isle," perhaps his most commonly reprinted story, appeared in no fewer than eight anthologies, "And Lo! The Bird" in a half dozen, and the breathtaking "Magic City" stayed in print for decades though its publication in Anthony Boucher's massive A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, which was kept alive and very much kicking through the SF Book Club. This is, perhaps, the anthology in which many — if not most — young readers first encountered Nelson's playful, intricate prose.
Much of Nelson's work, however, remains unreprinted. In the case of the sports stories, this was fine with him; he recognized them for what they were, bread-and-butter yarns intended to keep a roof over his head. However, there have never been definitive collections of some of his most famous characters: Squaredeal Sam McGhee, Pat Pending, and Horse-Sense Hank remain out of print, barring a singleton reprint here and there. Perhaps this can be rectified in the future.
It's customary in these sorts of things to say something along the lines of "We'll not see his like again." Well, yes, but that's practically universal, and hardly does anyone justice, let alone someone who was the master craftsman that Nelson was. He was one of the very few remaining links with our shared history, one of the last of the Giants. In the words of Lord Buckley, he stomped upon the Terra, and left his mark not only on the readers he touched, but the other writers with whom he shared pages.
I'll miss your laugh, Nelson, and your grace and honesty. May the earth rest lightly on you.
A Brief Bond Bibliography (books only)
Back to index