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Who Shot SF?
by Trent Walters

Suspect #1: Death Star and the Death of SF

God knows how long the Science Fiction Super Fish has flopped around out of water.

Amazing Stories F&SF It gasped its last when H.G. Wells turned from SF as thought and entertainment toward SF as utopian symbol, but revived in the nick of time, twenty years later, with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and his infamous fan clubs and decoder rings. It gave up the ghost during the Great Depression, but John Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding pragmatic science of the 40s did chest compressions while the 50s' literary wit of F&SF and Galaxy did mouth-to-mouth. But wit can only blow so much oxygen into a bad economy, so SF's death in the late 50s and early 60s had to await the New Wave reanimation, and then Ben Bova's Analog of the marriage of wonder Heaven to literary Hell, and then Ellen Datlow's omnibus of cyberpunk and other gritty future realities, and then Gardner Dozois' atmospheric Asimov's....

To say these editors haven't forged a Movement breathing new life into the Frankenstein fish, shaping the taste of the field just as Campbell or H.L. Gold or Gernsback is to miss the beach front property for the lovely sand castles. But, in Gabe Chouinard's defense, he does not believe in a death so much as an evolving of legs in order to walk off and join the different tribes of literature.

Asimov's Ah, say the nay-sayers too numerous to name, but what about subscriptions? SF's really out of its depth with their decline, desiccated by the dreaded Star Wars and subsequent celluloid clones. Analog, for instance, fell from a 1981 peak of 121,616 down to the February 2002 paid circulation of 43,129 (from my sources -- unconfirmed by the magazine itself; these numbers, however, do not account for cut-rate subscriptions dropped due to the expense of filling them).

Without the advent of the 70s' movie blockbusters, it may not have soared to its high. Like it or not, many of my generation suckled on Star Wars and Star Trek until we discovered the existence of magazines chock full of SF focused on more rigorous science and art. Even Ellen Datlow "had never heard of or read any of the pulps (nor their 'digest' fiction-magazine heirs) while growing up. The short fiction I read was from anthologies." Artless or not, the entertainment of Star Wars hook many of us.

Analog Moreover, look again at when Analog's subscription base peaked. In fact, some enterprising scholar ought to compare magazine peaks and troughs to waxing and waning cinema interest. Compare the rebirth of F&SF and Galaxy to the alpha and omega of 50s' xenophobic films. While those two magazines didn't die, others did, driving Robert Silverberg into his period of non-fiction. Sure, the masses understand SF through its foppish extremes, but what percent of any reading group understands the true art? How many readers believe poetry is schmaltzy verse written for girlfriends?

All right, so if Star Wars didn't kill SF, who did?

Suspect #2: The SFWA Class of '73 and Dčjá-vu on the Orient Express

In an essay entitled "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" from the Winter 1998 issue of Voice Literary Supplement, Jonathan Lethem points the finger at 1973 Nebula voting. If only the SFWA members had voted for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, SF would be safe in the arms of mainstream literature. Lethem built a strong case in his comments on the hideous SF book covers circa Star Wars and Arthur C. Clarke's fictional essay about an extraterrestrially constructed planet passing through our solar system. Yet despite Clarke's fictional technique, the wonder of his technology haunts us, years after. Will any reader of his look up at Jupiter without remembering the famous descent through its maelstrom?

F&SF Gordon Van Gelder responded editorially in October/November 1998 issue of F&SF saying in effect, "Who needs the mainstream?" since if we count Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Daniel Keyes, and Harlan Ellison (to quote from the actual article), "The science fiction field has fostered and grown numerous such works whose literary merits are, to my mind, incontrovertible." He goes on to blast critics who judge books by their covers.

What might have happened had Pynchon won the Nebula? This summer Terry Bisson looked over a copy of Riddley Walker I picked up from the used bookstore. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1981, but the cover, for some reason, neglected to mention it.

H.G. Wells Dunnit in the Library with the Gatling Gun

Am I crazy enough to suggest the Father Heaven ate Mother Mary Shelley's tender young caviar which might have otherwise swum the blessed maturity of the mainstream?

SF lost its virginal berth among the arts long before 1973. Shelley had literally married into the intellectual Romantic elite. Jules Verne appeared next, writing the Tom Clancy's of his era. No one had considered adding his name to the annals of literature.

Along came H.G. Wells, darling of such literary whales as Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, and Henry James. Just as Verne distanced himself from Wells' lack of scientific rigor, Wells distanced himself with "the worst of my so-called 'pseudo-scientific' (imbecile adjective) stuff... differentiates it from Jules Verne, e.g., just as Jonathan Swift is differentiated from Fantasia.... There is something other than either story writing or artistic merit which has emerged through the series of my books. Something one might regard as a new system of ideas -- 'thought.'" Wells' ideas of art, however, never came in line with the literary elite of his day. After petty squabblings, the two continents of literature drifted apart (James Gunn goes into more detail in "The Man Who Invented Tomorrow").

Rebel with a worthwhile idea system but also sadly a personality cause, Wells became the black sheep, the poster child of networking gone wrong. But he retained a large following among the anthropologists, historians, and sociologists. (Can this be blamed for why contemporary English language fiction largely ignores such issues while much world literature does not?) Here finally was a man who spoke and dazzled their language -- a language that, like the isolated finches of the Galapagos, evolved a new lineage and vocabulary.

SF vs. the World

Every genre has its reading protocols in order to appreciate its art fully. One cannot simply break lines of prose in random order or make adjacent lines rhyme and say it's poetry. One cannot set a detective loose on a murderer, have murderer turn himself in, and call it a mystery. Every art has its protocol. Even SF. In fact, SF probably has the most stringent rules around without even approaching a sense of art yet. Chouinard says that the jargon is a turn-off, but look at the success of Jules Verne and Tom Clancy. The protocols have been around awhile.

Even a quarter of a century ago, people were asking if hard SF would survive, yet Analog still sells the most SF magazines.

Dune But following a set of protocols isn't enough. Like any art form -- literary, painting, music -- SF has followed a trajectory of many movements. Without making one's self aware of what has gone before, a writer is doomed to repeat history. The best chronicler of these historical movements is Algis Budrys' essay "Paradise Charted" which David Hartwell reprinted in Visions of Wonder (Brian Aldiss wrote his take on genre history in The Billion Year Spree).

A written history is inadequate. How can you know the psycho-historical glories of Trantor without reading "The Mule" or the intricate politics without Dune? Their like cannot be found in or out of the genre. Writers cannot expect to make it new without knowing what has to be made new. Somebody ought to organize an anthology.

The Road To Science Fiction 5:  The British Way Norton Anthology of SF is a good anthology but fails to chart the genre's course. The best anthologies are probably Eric S. Rabkin's Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, Tom Shippey's The Oxford Book of Science Fiction and James Gunn's The Road to Science Fiction series -- the best of the best being the last in its attempts not merely to give brief summaries and a handful of important stories but to put the stories in context of what was happening in the genre at the time. A reader might balk at the length of Gunn's six volume series (though conceivably one could limp by on only the second and third volumes), but compare that to Gardner Dozois' recommended reading list.

So now the SF reader knows the protocols, the history and its revolutions; and he's ready to rumble, ready to forge a new revolution or go it alone in one of the splinter groups. But are these truly splinters? Or simply facets of the same jewel? It's time to recall our history. The splintering of science fiction has splintered since the pulp era. John W. Campbell, Jr. edited both Astounding and Unknown. What writer didn't cross borders? Jack Williamson made a science of fantasy. Jack Vance made a fantasy of science. Even Wells stirred fantasy into his science and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dabbled in the dark fantastic Spiritualism with his mysteries. This is why history is so essential.

Hard SF Renaissance Okay, so what we need then is a revolution. We've been revolution-less since cyberpunk and Datlow's gritty SF. Wrong. Every editor has wrought changes. Stanley Schmidt's Analog, simply as an outlet for always publishing science fiction with emphasis on science, and Dozois' Asimov's insisting on greater atmosphere have ushered in a more artful hard SF -- what Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer term the Hard SF Renaissance. It sneaked up on us, didn't soil us in a gritty future or upset the old fogies' with them gall-derned new-fangled experimentations, but you can compare the old to new and see the difference.

Full Unit Hookup #1 Shoot. If it's all been done, where do we go from here? At least two avenues lay wide open for revolution: wit and experiment. A common mistake in philosophy or history is to presuppose we have evolved beyond the primitivism of our past. As Lethem pointed out, a lot of the experimenting of the New Wave was utter crap (Sturgeon's rather optimistic 90 percent law applies here as to the Old Wave, as to cyberpunk and the Hard SF Renaissance). The only magazine I've seen that is presently publishing good genre, non-faux experimentation is Mark Rudolph's Full Unit Hookup.

Venue number two is to reexamine the better wit of the 50s that Fred Pohl in an interview eschewed as outdated. Pohl is a knowledgeable critic and the incomparable author of Gateway (and co-author of the witty 50s Space Merchants which Donald Fagen lists as his favorite and which both Dozois and Gunn recommend), but I'm about to prove that in this instance Pohl was either coked up or full of shinola. The 50s are still significant.

Robert Sheckley and the Art of SF

Pilgrimage to Earth
Citizen in Space
Imortality Inc.
Robert Sheckley continues to be underrated. Why a large number of writers aren't listing him as a primary influence should concern the entire genre. A historical anthology without him is not historical (ahem, Professor Shippey). Jonathan Lethem astutely reprinted him in the deceptively mainstream Vintage Book of Amnesia.

The keenest observation on Sheckley I've found was Hartwell's comment that "[h]e is on par with Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut as an ironic investigator of questions of identity and the nature of reality," but this doesn't account for all of Sheckley's value.

Critical aficionados mislabel his achievements. Robert Conquest praised the work as "unmitigated SF" without "particularly profound... philosophical" or "social comment." How mistaken! His stories have appeared in anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology texts. Conquest also claimed Sheckley's clarity or lack of style as stylish -- maybe if you consider Sheckley's perfect timing as style, but that's a stretch.

John Clute and Lethem no doubt meant well calling the humor "mordant," but Damon Knight was closer: "satirical wit that is dry without being bitter." Yet even that falls shy of the unusual sensitivity: the sweetness of its sour. Pound for pound, Oscar Wilde has more wit but lacks the amazing grace of the Sheckley touch. When was the last time you read a contemporary author, science fiction or otherwise, worth quoting or stamping on the bumper of your hovercraft?

Clute notes the lack of character power over his milieu (Clute uses the phrase "lack of drive" but must mean power since he later notes how the characters scramble about for survival, which shows at least some drive). Although humans like to pretend we have control, for most it's an everyday struggle to survive our milieu. So long as we struggle for something better, we will long to see tomorrow. The Greeks were well aware of a milieu beyond our control and blamed the gods. Take another look at the The Odyssey.

Why I make a big deal out of mislabeled writers is that someone looking for, say, mordant humor could pick up Sheckley and become sorely disappointed. If SF is to be a success, it demands truth in advertising. Any salesman worth his foot in the door knows you've got to have a good product and, if you want repeat business, you can't bullshit the customer. Should the literary bigwigs still refuse to buy its art, fine. Time will prove their absurdity.

Case in point: "The Body" from Pilgrimage to Earth. Sheckley has had innumerable works of genius reprinted, but this gem has not been. This short, under the analysis of contemporary fiction, falls apart. Although science fiction can weave the same artistic looms as the literary, it has also changed what once was considered the only viable form.

"When Professor Meyer opened his eyes he saw, leaning anxiously over him, three of the young specialists who had performed the operation. It struck him at once that they would have to be young to attempt what they had attempted; young and irreverent, possessed of encyclopedic technical knowledge to the exclusion of all else; iron-nerved, steel-fingered, inhuman, in fact. They had the qualifications of automatons."
A more apt description of type-cast medical recruits does not exist. Is this mordant? Maybe the last line and a half. But all that preceded was truly complimentary. Moreover, the later characterization of their concern for their patient demonstrates a sensitivity unlike any other writer of the satirical vein who would no doubt run with this paragraph only to describe the sins of medicine, neglecting any mention of possible salvations except to lead up to another, greater sin.
Untouched by Human Hands

The 10th Victim
The Robot Who...

No profound philosophy? Paring down to the essence of existence surely is. Due to the limitations of his new speaking apparatus, Professor wakes up to stutter two-fifths of Descartes' most famous phrase: "I think -- I think -- ". His next stutterance completes not only two-fifths of Descartes' but also another four-fifths of the most famous figure in all of literature whose figure is recalled in the new issue that the Professor now occupies (the obfuscation is intentional, so that you have to seek out the story for yourself although all the clues are here to put it together for yourself).

The unifying principles provide a philosophy that asks us if we really are who we think we are -- "think" being the most apropos operative verb. A lesser writer would have thought that enough. Yet Sheckley wraps up with a stirring finale that a careless reader might dismiss as light humor or quaint or trite. But it asks us, "What principle unites us with all living creatures?" which loops back into the difficult question of who we really are while answering it.

The reason the current perception of art is inadequate is that, while the characterization and development here are negligible, a development occur: within the reader -- chiefly due to Sheckley's sensitive wit. What other writer can make you horrified alongside the protagonist at the killing of innocent human beings for pleasure yet laugh at your righteous indignation when he does? (You must read "Pilgramage to Earth," wisely included in Gunn's historical series.)

Don't be fooled. Sheckley shams a humble, down-home, anti-intellectual stance mirrored by the easy, clear "stylish" prose, but he asks all the important intellectual questions. To paraphrase Robert Silverberg: Sheckley only makes writing for all ages look easy. There's nothing outdated about a brilliant and timeless portrayal of humanity.

Whacha gonna do when they come for you?

We are the bad boys of literature, experimenting with the form. Like Sheckley, we are jus' the po' ol' country hicks, tricking the superior city slickers into white-washing the fence. We are the jazz of literature that inbreeding classicists cannot accept. We are the world, the renegade children, the melting pot of literary forms with innovations they have never heard of -- innovations poised for exploitation. Let's not neglect our forefathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and their true accomplishments. Before you praise or critique, understand what the author attempted. Know the history. That way, when missionaries from the literary kingdom infiltrate our borders, they cannot accuse us of barbarism.

At the same time, it's foolhardy to accuse Ursula K. Le Guin, Lethem, and Karen Joy Fowler of treachery slipping into enemy territory when in fact they have done the genre a service, by donning different guises to lead the literary elite astray. The same fools who refuse to read nothing but realist fiction would no doubt bluster hypocritically were they to convince those who refuse to read fiction because it isn't real.

Kill them with kindness. When the rest of the literary world is ready to wake up and accept SF as a legitimate literature, welcome them with open arms.


* In 1961, Earl Kemp published a rare, one-shot, double-billed, Hugo-winning fanzine entitled Who Killed Science Fiction?. Seventy-one famous names of the time contributed their opinions on the matter. The author apologizes that it could not be located within a reasonable timeframe but urges himself and others to research this potential gem of SF history. If the usual suspects are accused -- academics, critics, the greenhouse effect -- then this author points to the existence of this article, SF Site, and the fact that you are reading this (for it may be we the accused have actually encased it in amber). Viva La Resistance!

The author would like to thank James Gunn and Gordon Van Gelder for their thoughts and assistance.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.


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