Tom Purdom in Philadelphia: Starry Nights with Harpsichord and Atomic Airplane

Let's start with the man's wit. Some years ago, I chanced to be present when Tom Purdom was explaining the early history of Philcon to a rapt fan. Feeling puckish, I said, "Tell us about the time that Jules Verne was Guest of Honor." And without so much as blinking an eye, he replied: "He was invited to be Principal Speaker; we didn't have Guests of Honor back then, we had Principal Speakers. He couldn't make it, unfortunately, but he sent us a telegram saying - in French, of course - 'What one man can imagine, another can do.' The con committee gathered in a little room when it arrived and after it was read, we cheered. We were all excited about it because the telegraph was a new invention and so this was a big moment for us."

I don't think I've ever been put in my place with half so much literary flair.

Tom Purdom has been such an integral part of the Philadelphia science fiction scene for the past fifty years that it comes as something of a shock to learn that he was not born here but in New Haven, Connecticut. His father was a submariner and consequently, as a Navy brat, his childhood involved frequent moves. So when he came to Philadelphia in August of 1954 at age eighteen, with two years of college already under his belt, he was ready to lay down roots. He found work and set about learning his craft by writing in the evenings and assiduously collecting rejection slips.

At that point, his campaign to become a writer was already five years old. Tom began writing and submitting stories for publication at the precocious age of thirteen, and fixed his ambitions on science fiction a year later. A lot of people get interested in space travel through science fiction. Tom Purdom did it the other way around. He discovered Willey Ley's Rockets and Space Travel in his high school library and this led him, a year later, to Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. So on arriving in town, he immediately joined not the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society but the Philadelphia Astronautical Society. His first exposure to fandom came when, as a representative of that organization, he presented a slide lecture on the future of space travel to a PSFS audience including Alan E. Nourse and L. Sprague de Camp.

In 1957, Tom Purdom made his first sale with "Grieve for a Man" in Hans Stefan Santesson's Fantastic Universe. Over the next fifteen years, Tom published five novels, most notably Reduction in Arms and The Barons of Behavior, sixteen or seventeen short stories, a nonfiction anthology called Adventures in Science, and numerous magazine articles, and also served two terms as vice president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. His career seemed solidly on track.

But in the mysterious way that these things happen, the market for his novels abruptly dried up. (Some of us blame a lackadaisical agent, but that's another story.) There was still a ready market for his short fiction but, perversely enough, almost every short story idea he got grew into a novel-sized idea. Meanwhile, Tom had discovered the rewards, both financial and in terms of freedom to set his own schedule, of writing commercial non-fiction.

When I met Tom in the early '70s, he and his wife Sara were the quintessential urban couple - sophisticated, gracious, and ubiquitous. If there was an interesting cultural event happening somewhere in Philadelphia, they were there. They held monthly soirees at their house in West Philly, which included SF folks like Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, David Sherman, George Scithers, and Jack McKnight, who gained a lasting place in fannish history when he machined the first Hugo trophy in his basement. Tom's myriad interests brought in bicycle activists, librarians, engineers, folkorists, ministers, at least one individual widely suspected of being a spy, scientists, seamstresses, war-gamers... oh, everyone was there.

Those wonderful starry evenings were exactly what you come to the city to find, opportunities to feel urban and intellectual in the best senses of those words, and to be valued for your conversation and the wit you bring to the group. Tom had built a harpsichord, and sometimes Sara played it. Once a year they had a Christmas carol sing-along, and a Young Turk named Gardner Dozois would always disrupt it by bursting into a rousing chorus of "Good King Sauerkraut" from Walt Kelly's Pogo cartoons. Jack McKnight stagily mimed tiptoeing out with my sleeping infant son's baby basket in his arms. Milt Rothman gently corrected my misinformed history of America's project to built an atomic-powered steam airplane.

Those were good times, and if you missed them I feel sorry for you.

Professionally, Tom tended to choose work involving medicine, city planning, and biotechnology, but he turned his hand to pretty much any writing project that he could do well and honorably. He likes to boast that his best-selling work was a comic book on shop safety titled Doing It Right, which was distributed to millions of high school vocational arts students.

It was in this period that Tom Purdom first became a music critic. Classical and early music had been integral to much of Tom's fiction. So it wasn't entirely surprising that he would find himself writing a regular column for a variety of local publications beginning with a weekly newspaper called the Welcomat and culminating in his current gig at Philadelphia Magazine. But those who have never wandered into the world of classical music might be surprised by the reverence with which he is held by performers, simply because, as he once explained to me, "There are so few openings nowadays for classical musicians that only the absolute best get to perform in public, and it's extremely rare that they're anything less than excellent. Some critics will find fault when there's no reason for it, just to establish their superior taste. But I feel that the critic's first obligation is to be honest, even if it makes him look like he enjoys everything he hears. Which, by and large, I do."

I've seen people who are powers in the classical music world gush and all but genuflect in front of Tom. And his reaction to this? On our way to a SFWA event in New York City once, he pulled me into the lobby of Carnegie Hall and gleefully said, "Nobody here has ever heard of me!"

He lived well and happily, publishing only the occasional science fiction story.

Then, in 1990, something remarkable happened. Tom Purdom emerged from his long near-silence with "A Proper Place to Live," a light and amusing whimsy which those who know him could only read as a love letter to his wife. Its publication in Asimov's heralded his return to the field as a writer to be taken seriously, and the beginning of an extraordinary body of work that is now well into its second decade. In that time, his short fiction has consistently been among the year's best. I've read either all or most of these works, and there's not a one of them I would hesitate to praise without reservation.

The stories range over a variety of topics from the effectiveness of nineteenth-century military tactics ("Dragon Drill") to the interpersonal politics of string quartets ("Chamber Story"). But what they all have in common, other than a graceful and assured prose style, is that they're all explorations of ideas. Take, for example, what may be Tom's best-known story, "Fossil Games," which was a Hugo finalist in 2000. It's set in a future in which artificial systems to augment human intelligence are a commonplace - but God help you if you buy into Windows Millennium just before XP comes out, or, worse, invest in an orphan system, leaving you with a Tandy mind in an iPod world. A group of misfits with IQs of 600 and 700 - morons, basically - pool their money to buy a starship so they can flee a System they can no longer comprehend and find a simpler world of their own. But the planet they discover, though lifeless, has fossils indicating that complex life once thrived there, and their political implications are so intense that war - a bloodless war, fought by surrogate vandalism, but in context shocking nevertheless - breaks out among the colonists.

My thumbnail sketch, however, gives you no idea of how crammed with ideas "Fossil Games" actually is. Indeed, there were moments (during a conversation in which the participants shifted effortlessly from natural, machine, and music-based languages in order to convey a delicate nuance of meaning, say) when I could feel my skull creak from the pressure of my brain expanding with the effort to follow the hyper-intelligent reasoning of the protagonist. This is the kind of stuff that brought us all into science fiction in the first place, written in full awareness of what contemporary writers like Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter are up to, and willing to match them innovation for innovation.

Tom Purdom has two grand recurrent themes in his work - war, and peace. War plays a prominent part in stories like "Sergeant Mother Glory" and "Civilians," which are informed and sympathetic explorations into the military mind and "A Champion of Democracy" in which the conflict is painless, but defeat means being reprogrammed into a hostile ideology. Or "Sheltering," a quiet gem of a story in which Tom creates a new sort of war as background for a meditation on fathers and sons, military tactics and war games, and the transmission of human values. His Casanova stories ("Romance in Extended Time," "Romance with Phobic Variations," and "Romance for Augmented Trio"), on the other hand, employ a man who is irresistible to women because he genuinely falls in love with them, as a means of finding high drama in an essentially peaceful future.

It is this last quality, Tom Purdom's willingness to imagine worlds in which people treat each other better than they do now, which is his work's most distinctive characteristic. Nor does this come as a surprise to anyone who knows him, for Tom is - and you can read it in his stories - a quintessentially humane man.

Let me give you a very small example of his kindness.

This happened roughly a quarter-century ago, when I was a newly minted writer. I was hanging out with Tom and Gardner and Susan, and I must have said something about having just lost my first Nebula Award, because Tom immediately took Gardner aside and they exchanged whispers. Then he explained that, years before, they two had invented the Philadelphia Award (a.k.a. the "Rizzo") for "best work of science fiction by a Philadelphian in an uncontested category." Note the cunning of that final clause! Each of them, he said, had received one, and now it was my turn. He clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand. Gardner applauded. And Susan drew up the award itself - a crossed hoagie-and-nightstick on a paper plate inscribed Best Novelette 1980, "Ginungagap" by Michael Swanwick.

I still have that award hung on my wall. It's one of my most cherished possessions. Every time I look at it, I relive that moment, and feel a sudden flush of gratitude for Tom's generosity and warmth.

So it gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the special place Tom Purdom has in our city and our lives, not only as the dean of the Philadelphia science fiction community, but more than that, its very heart and soul.

© 2004 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in Philcon program book

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