Science Fiction Writers' Craziest Wagers

Science fiction's best authors chart a vast and unpredictable cosmos - but they're not above making a little wager here and there on earthly matters. Here are SF authors' weirdest (and most productive) bets.

Note: Most of the stories below are anecdotal at best, and based on rumor and urban legends. Where possible, we've provided actual documentation.

Science Fiction Writers' Craziest Wagers

L. Ron Hubbard's "start a religion" bar bet:

This one is commonly dismissed as a myth... but it's also like kudzu on the Internet. Supposedly, L. Ron Hubbard bet Robert Heinlein that he could make a ton of money by starting a fake religion. (In one version, Heinlein bet that his own invention, non-monogamy, would be more successful.) Or maybe Hubbard made the bet with Philip K. Dick. Or Arthur C. Clarke. Or George Orwell. Or John W. Campbell. No, wait - it was Ray Bradbury.

The Lewis-Tolkien time-travel wager:

Legend has it, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had a bet, that they would each try writing in a new genre, to stretch both of their writing styles. Writes Bruce L. Edwards in his book C.S. Lewis:

A simple flip of a coin determined that Lewis would try his hand at a space-travel story and Tolkien would try time-travel.

As a result, Lewis wrote the space trilogy: Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote in a 1968 letter that his effort "ran dry." Writes Edwards:

Tolkien's typical method of composition led to a not surprising end: his initial attempt to write a tale of time-travel became overly complicated and burdened with detail and it was eventually left as an unfinished work. He called it The Lost Road and it was a tale of a present day English father and son who, through the son's visions and dreams, are able to travel back [through] time to meet another father and son, similar to them, who are living at the time in Middle-earth's history when the star-shaped island of Númenor is destroyed.

The Númenor tale wound up as part of Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but he never finished the actual time-travel story. So yes, Lewis won the bet.

The unnamed SF writer who wrote an intentionally bad book:

Rumors abound that a famous science fiction writer bet that he could write an intentionally terrible book and it would be a hit, because the public's taste was so bad. And indeed, the book in question was a huge hit. (This wager is supposedly mentioned in the foreword to Spider Robinson's Callahan Chronicles, but not the name of the author.)

Science Fiction Writers' Craziest Wagers

Asimov's impossible isotope:

The Internet has lots of unsubstantiated reports about Isaac Asimov's trans-universal novel The Gods Themselves. Either Asimov wrote it in response to a dare, to write a novel "about an impossible isotope of iron." Or he wrote in response to people saying he couldn't write about aliens or sex, which is sort of like a bet. There's also the famous Asimov-Clarke treaty, where Asimov agreed to call Clarke the best science fiction writer, as long as Clarke called Asimov the best science writer.

Update: reader Jacob Kaufman says Asimov actually wrote the novella that became part of The Gods Themselves in response to Robert Silverberg saying that science fiction should be about the human dimension, not "Plutonium 186," picking a science-fictional term at random. Asimov laughed, because there's no such thing as Plutonium-186, and there can't be in this universe. But then he became intrigued and decided to write about a universe in which Plutonium-186 existed, and came into this universe as a free (but unstable) source of energy. (More details on that here.) And Asimov didn't write the book in response to people saying he never wrote about aliens or sex, but he did include those elements in the middle section, for that reason. Thanks, Jacob!

Michael Crichton's Beowulf wager:

The Jurassic Park author wrote one of his best novels, Eaters Of The Dead, in response to a wager that he couldn't write a version of the Beowulf saga and make it relevant to a modern audience. The resulting book is presented as a lost manuscript written by an Islamic envoy kidnapped by Vikings in 932.

Harlan Ellison's jazz record wager:

In 1960, Harlan Ellison was already a major up-and-coming science fiction writer, but he fancied himself a jazz expert as well. One day, he got into an argument with jazz columnist Ted White over whether a 1939 Mildred Lewis album featured backing music by John Kirby or John Lewis. Ellison was so sure of himself, he bet his entire record collection - and if he lost, he'd only collect one record from White's collection. In the end, Ellison settled the bet... at gunpoint. You can read the whole account in White's famous essay "The Bet."

Science Fiction Writers' Craziest Wagers

James P. Hogan's win and loss:

Libertarian science fiction author James Hogan is a betting man. First, according to his own website, he wrote his first novel on a bet with a coworker that he couldn't write an SF novel and get it published. (He won five pounds that time.) But also, according to this other site, Hogan also bet that his novel, Inherit The Stars, would be better than the Arthur C. Clarke story that provided the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I'm guessing he lost that one.)

Additional reporting by Alasdair Wilkins.