Obituary: Lester Del Rey
Saturday 15 May 1993
NOTHING more vividly emphasises the youngness of American science fiction than the deaths of those who ran it from the start. Lester Del Rey was involved in the genre from the 1930s until a few months ago, and over the course of a highly successful life as writer and publisher became one of the figures who symbolised the life story of the form. Pulp science fiction began in enthusiastic obscurity, soon turned into a secret tale of the future for thousands, and suddenly exploded into highly profitable, multi-media visibility over the last two decades of the century. In a way this is his story, too.
Lester Del Rey was born Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del-Rey de los Verdes in 1915, in Minnesota, to a poor family. He became a science fiction fan in 1931, did not finish college, took a variety of odd jobs, and began to publish fiction professionally in 1938. For many years he wrote stories and novels, some of them still well-known, while at the same time editing, with intermittent success, a variety of genre magazines. In the early 1970s, Judy-Lynn Del Rey (his fourth wife) became science fiction editor for Ballantine Rooks, a branch of Random House; in 1977, he joined her as fantasy editor of a new Ballantine imprint, Del Rey books.
Over the next 15 years he and Judy-Lynn, who died in 1986, showed an uncanny capacity to find and publish bestsellers, and to promote the writers they had discovered into household names. Their discoveries included huge-selling fantasy authors like Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings. Established writers as well - like Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl - found streams of new readers. Del Rey Books became the dominant science fiction and fantasy imprint in the United States, and its editors were probably more responsible than anyone - with the possible exceptions of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg - for the huge popularity of the genre in the 1980s.
For good or for ill, Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Rey had helped transform an enclave enterprise into a marketing juggernaut; in the process, it may be, they were also responsible in part for the loss of the genre's old biting edge, for they were not much interested in work which threatened the status quo. The success of Del Rey Books, as a publisher of commodity fiction, seemed symptomatic of a general 1980s sense that science fiction had begun to age prematurely. In the 1990s, as younger authors began to reshape the genre, the imprint became less dominant.
As a fiction writer, Del Rey had a a relatively short career, though a prolific one. His first 38 stories - including the famous 'Helen O'Loy' (1938), about a female robot who commits suttee when her husband/owner dies - were all written for John W Campbell Jnr, the important editor whose Astounding Science Fiction dominated the 'Golden Age' of the genre in the early 1940s. For Campbell he also wrote a short version of what eventually became his starkest novel, Nerves (1956), about a dangerous mishap at a nuclear-power plant. Other novels, like Police Your Planet (1956), or Siege Perilous (1966, with Paul W. Fairman) demonstrated a cunning grasp of narrative, but perhaps an ultimately fatal lack of conviction. Most of his late books, written for children, were in fact ghosted by Fairman. Del Rey wrote very little solo fiction after about 1960.
His feelings about the history of the genre to which he had dedicated his life were made clear in The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976: the history of a subculture (1979), where he demonstrated that the various revolts and New Waves of science fiction's maturity had little to interest him. His loyalty remained with the pure pulp of his youth, the tales of breakthroughs read in secret by adolescents dreaming of the shape of things to come. Del Rey Books was instrumental in a process through which that pulp tradition became an entertainment industry with little room for revolts or breakthroughs.
Lester Del Rey retired in 1991. It is not known what he came to think of what he had made.
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