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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
Nineteen-eighty saw the publication of Barry N. Malzberg's collection of critical essays The Engines of the Night. Dealing with innumerable subjects and personalities in the science-fiction field, its tone, the general feeling it expressed, was one of pessimism and despair. It was met with its share of both approbation and criticism. In April of 2007, Baen Books gathered this previous book's essays together with a fresh collection of essays (and, as with the previous collection, from a wide variety of sources) written since the first collection saw print twenty-seven years ago. The overall title has now become Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium, Part One comprising the earlier work and Part Two assembling for the first time the subsequent essays, some 30-odd in number, and broken further into two sub-categories; Meditations, and Writers and other Culprits.
Parts One and Two are of equal length, some 200 pages, and individual essays rarely run to more than four pages. I found the entire book a fascinating read, rife with facts, anecdotes, observations, and strong opinions, some of which I am still attempting to evaluate, to square with corroborative, or counter-observations I have read in similar works from the likes of Damon Knight, James Blish, Alexei Panshin, Robert A. Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, James Gunn, David Hartwell, and others, who, while penning books of criticism, scholarship, histories, or their own personal take on the science-fiction field, have contributed to the ongoing dialogue concerning the state and future of the science-fiction experience, its role as literature, and ultimately its relevance to the world at large. It is, for want of a more precise metaphor, another valuable brick in the wall of the science-fiction mansion many of us call home. Just where this brick belongs, however, is the question. Not whether it indeed belongs, for it certainly deserves its place, but where.
Only by reading Breakfast in the Ruins itself can one fairly attempt to place the book in its proper place in the many-roomed SF mansion. One critic may feel quite positively about the book, another may pan it thoroughly. Both will say they are attempting to be fair, but their biases and perspectives will have inevitably intruded upon their analysis, and this is not to fault them, or their analyses, for such matters are by their very nature subjective, even in cases where facts presented are without question correct, but interpretation of the facts is still subject to the slippery slope of subjectivism.
What I am trying to say in a roundabout manner is that the original work, The Engines of the Night, was a controversial book, and this new collection of essays (layered upon the original work) is bound to elicit similar responses from a certain quarter, though I expect as many or more will praise it. I count myself among the latter, though hardly because I may happen to agree with Malzberg on many counts. There are many points with which I am in no position to judge his assessments of legendary (or forgotten) SF luminaries (or lesser lights). There are equally as many of his observations of the field as a whole with which I sorely want to disagree with him, to say to him directly and in person, "Say it ain't so, Mr. Malzberg." But hoping and wishing something weren't so, doesn't make it so. We must, if we are to be intellectually honest, look at the evidence, weigh it against other evidence, pro and con, and then make whatever peace we can with the science fiction field, and ourselves. First, accept the genre for what it is, and if we don't like what we see try to change it for the better, or feel safe and comfy if we think all is well in SF-ville and do nothing but ride the wave of euphoria we choose to embrace.
Either way, there is nothing any critic can say (second-hand, as it were) to persuade, or dissuade, you from reading this book that lends itself more to the immediacy of the experience than the reading of it can do on its own. The old writer's axiom of "Show, don't tell," is no more true for the writing of fiction than it is for the reading of this work of nonfiction. The author's own words hold more immediate power and influence than those of this, or any other, reviewer or critic. With this in mind, I have chosen an essay that intrigued me (there are so many here I could have opened the book to any page), and wrote Mr. Malzberg asking if I could reprint it. He enthusiastically agreed. The following is but one example of approximately seventy-five in the book. Each is as fascinating as the next, but this is the one I chose, and is a perfect example of how virtually any essay in the book can lead to either informed cocktail conversation, serious discussion, or spirited debate; but, in the end (hopefully) a more rounded understanding of particular periods in the history of science fiction as seen through Barry Malzberg's eyes. Heaven knows there are far too many committing science fiction today (newer writers and editors) who have no real understanding or grasp of the field or its history, and far too many readers new enough to the field that even some of our legends, our Big Name writers are unbelievably unknown to them. This book should be read by them as well, if for no other reason than a jumping off point to others.
Following the essay, there is commentary from James Gunn, Norman Spinrad, Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull (Mrs. Fred Pohl), Mr. Malzberg himself, and Stanley Schmidt. I wish to extend my thanks to the aforementioned for their (unpaid) time and contributions, and especially to Barry N. Malzberg for permission to reprint the following essay.
I posed the following question to a few SF writers and critics:
From Barry's 1980 essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," first collected in The Engines of the Night, and now included in its entirety as the first half of his Breakfast in the Ruins, he chronicles his one and only meeting with Campbell. Barry says he "wanted to know why Analog was the restrictive, right-wing, anti-literary publication that it had become." To that end he said to Campbell, "You've got to understand the human element here, it's not machinery, it's people, people being consumed at the heart of these machines, onrushing technology, the loss of individuality, the loss of control, these are the issues that are going to matter to science fiction for the next fifty years. It's got to explore the question of vicitimization."
"I'm not interested in victims," Campbell said. "I'm interested in heroes. I have to be; science fiction is a problem-solving medium, man is a curious animal who wants to know how things work and given enough time can find out." Barry counters with "But not everyone is a hero. Not everyone can solve problems—"
"Those people aren't the stuff of science fiction," Campbell said. "If science fiction doesn't deal with success or the road to success, then it isn't science fiction at all."
From later in the essay: "Mainstream literature is about failure," Campbell said, "a literature of defeat. Science fiction is challenge and discovery."
This dichotomy between Campbell's vision of science fiction and Barry's seems to be at the heart of the matter yet today. What are your thoughts on these competing visions? Isn't this reflected, in varying degrees of popularity, in what readers seem to seek in their science fiction today—or is Barry's argument with Campbell exposing something deeper about what science fiction's message, as a new form of literature, should tell us of our technological world?
Was Campbell just the glass half-full optimist, and Barry the glass half-empty pessimist (or realist)? Doesn't science fiction reveal the wonderful possibilities and dangers of our technological world?
James Gunn: Barry's insights are always illuminating and often provocative, like John Campbell himself. Campbell published a good deal of ironic and questioning fiction, from Ted Sturgeon ("Microcosmic God" and others) to Jack Williamson ("With Folded Hands"). It also is true that many of his more multi-valued writers moved to Galaxy and F&SF after 1949. But as late as the mid-1950s he was telling me that people were right to be questioning their powerlessness in the face of science-created change ("Witches Must Burn"), and in the 1972 film ("Lunch with John Campbell") I made with him, Gordy Dickson, and Harry Harrison, he still was throwing caveats into their science- and technology-related assumptions. He did pick up some odd issues ("the Dean Drive") in his later years, but many of his stances were intended to provoke rather than to define, and he was not only capable of but enjoyed arguing effectively on either side of any issue (Gordon Dickson told me a story about Lester del Rey dropping by Campbell's office after Pearl Harbor and Campbell arguing that the war would be over in six months, and then arguing for the other side on his commuter train-ride home).
Norman Spinrad: As one of Campbell's last "discoveries," I don't know quite what to say about this. Campbell, let us remember, published the whole Dune trilogy, and in the end, Paul Atreides is a tragic hero, or maybe no hero at all. I think there is something false about this dichotomy, forced, perhaps, by both Barry and Campbell taking extreme ideological positions here. Virtually all fiction has to be about conflict of some sort, internal, external, whatever. Neither mainstream literature nor science fiction is either a literature of failure or defeat, discovery or despair.
Campbell was right about challenge. All fiction must involve some kind of challenge or there is no story. Barry was wrong about science fiction having to be about victimization, though right that in a sense there has to be a character under some kind of internal or external pressure. Both are wrong in contending that science fiction, or any fiction, has to end in triumph (Campbell) or despair (Barry). If the reader assumes one thing or the other because of where the fiction is being published, the dramatic tension is gone. This applies equally to science fiction and mainstream.
Science fiction as a whole is about all possibilities.
Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull: I offer my thumbnail description of the two kinds of science fiction as Cautionary ("If this goes on . . .) and Celebratory (of the triumph of human reason over adversity). I do think readers of American (including Canadian) science fiction expect and appreciate more of the latter than the former, although North Americans seem to like the British pessimism, perhaps for their more graceful writing style and use of language, in spite of their gloominess. I myself like sf best when the story ends happily but not unfairly, by which I don't mean a fairy tale wrap-up, just that the human race somehow manages to survive and the humans are as much a part of the solution as they are part of the problem. It's not satisfying to have a deus ex machina solve our problems; Aristotle was right about that.
Barry Malzberg: The question you pose is of course the question I posed, it is at the heart of this trammeled field and the darkness which seems to have overwhelmed. (I think that science fiction is pretty well done in; Spinrad's quote from an unnamed friend in Paris l5 years ago haunts me: "Science fiction, oh that is a finished thing.") But it's even more complex than you think because, really, how cheerful, forward-looking and optimistic was JWC? He wrote "Who Goes There?," "Twilight," didn't he? He published: "Shock," Fury, "The Twonky," "The Equalizer," "The Prisoner in the Skull," "Universe," "Private Eye," "Nightfall," "Period Piece," (take a look at that little joymaker in l948) and I could go on and on. Campbell as he aged and became marginalized, froze and attempted to deny, abrogate, obliterate his vision, but he knew better. And of course there's as much or more despair in those late-JWC Christopher Anvil stories, those Jack Wodhams carnivals. The rictus grin on a corpse.
So it's not a simple matter of Mr. Gloom-and-Doom vs. Mr. Stories-of-Heroes. Campbell and I—the more you think about this—in our respective primes, had reached pretty much the same conclusions.
Stanley Schmidt: If I hadn't actually read Astounding/Analog in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and had to form my impression of it from the description "restrictive, right-wing, anti-literary," the mental picture I would form would be very—and unfairly—different from the reality. That phrase seems to me, at best, a gross and misleading oversimplification. This probably bothers me more than most because, as the current editor of Analog, I still have to contend with people who mistakenly assume that that phrase was and is an accurate description of the magazine.
John was "restrictive" in the same way most, if not all, editors are: he tried to publish things that he liked and thought most of his readers would like. When Barry calls him "restrictive and anti-literary," it seems to me that all he's really saying is that John preferred to emphasize a different part of the literary spectrum than Barry would. I agree with Barry that science fiction needs to examine the problems posed by advancing technology. But I also agree with John that learning to deal with problems is more productive than merely bemoaning how terrible they are.
Maybe Dave says it better than either John or Barry: science fiction can and should reveal both the possibilities and the dangers of our technological world—both the possibilities and the dangers. That's what I try to do in my own fiction, in Analog, and in The Coming Convergence, my nonfiction book coming out from Prometheus in April 2008. But there's no reason to demand that any one magazine, book, or author try to be all things to all people. That's why we have more than one.
Again, from Engines, from the 1980 essay "Wrong Rabbit," Barry challenges the accepted wisdom that "The Happy Engineer" kind of story began with Campbell's editorship of Astounding, which began in 1937 and is generally thought to have characterized the magazine during the 1940s. Barry makes the case that this was not true when he writes:
"The truth, as any fresh confrontation of the material would certainly make clear, is that the forties ASF is filled with darkness, that the majority of its most successful and reprinted stories dealt with the bleakest implications of technology and that "modern" science fiction (defined by Budrys as that which originated with Campbell's editorship of Astounding given him in October 1937) rather than being a problem-solving literature was a literature of despair.Has Barry indeed debunked the myth of the Happy Engineer from the forties ASF? Did Campbell's more optimistic period as editor not begin until the fifties, when Gold and Boucher claimed dystopic territory as their own? Norman Spinrad's answer was:
Norman Spinrad: See answer to question 1. I don't believe in any of this dark/light, utopian/dystopian dichotomy stuff. Gold published The Demolished Man, arguably tragedy, but also The Stars My Destination, certainly not. Boucher's F&SF was not particulary either. I think I am an example of how Campbell's vision was not locked in the fifties, ditto Frank Herbert. And I think Gordon Dickson's work, while generally not dystopian, was hardly ever lacking in ambiguous moral complexities.
I'm not all that familiar with the so-called Happy Engineer stuff of the forties. But in general, I think Campbell has been somewhat misunderstood. I heard him say—maybe even to me personally, I don't remember— "Don't decide something is or is not a 'Campbell story'. Let me decide. Don't try to do my job for me."
He was capable of surprises into the 1970s. He published my first three stories—a kind of romantic Bradburyesque story, a hard science novelette, a story whose premise that the only way to successful interstellar voyage was to send out a crew of stoners with plenty of drugs. And he published Anne McCaffrey's first dragon stories, and helped her work out the biology.
We see from a single essay a range of opinions. James Gunn offers that Malzberg's "insights are always illuminating and often provocative, like John Campbell himself."
Spinrad notes that both Campbell and Malzberg were right and wrong about several things.
Schmidt takes stronger issue with Malzberg's assertions about Astounding/Analog in the fifties, maintaining that Campbell did nothing very much different than any other editor, but with his own view of storytelling.
Hull takes a different tack and comments about the two main schools of SF (as generalized from the views of Campbell and Malzberg), and what she perceives as the readership for both schools.
Barry maintains his own view about Campbell and the sort of fiction he published (which was very different from the superscience SF he wrote before becoming editor of ASF).
Is there any single truth to be found here? Or little truths scattered about amid the opinions? How does one reconcile different interpretations of the facts (in this case, the "type" of stories Campbell published)? Regardless, this one essay out of dozens serves to illustrate the point that history is a fluid and fragile entity, and that it may take more than one historian to arrive at any more reliable "truth."
Further essays (all coming from the new material written from 1980 through 2007) are also excellent fodder for discussion, debate, and exhibit valuable personal insight. Here are excerpts from a few:
From the chapter "On Engines Again," (1992) Malzberg recounts Thomas M. Disch's reaction to Engines upon its first appearance: "A year and a half later, at Omni's fifth anniversary party, Disch—whose Camp Concentration, "Asian Shore," and 334, I note for the record, I revere; surely Camp Concentration is the best novel to come out of genre science fiction in the 1960s—took the time and trouble to explain his problems with the book of essays. 'You look for defeat, you look for disaster,' he said, 'You come to the subject of science fiction with a burden of despair and cynicism and then you scout around for confirming examples, load the evidence so that you can make the same point over and again. First the verdict, then the trial. It's a harrowing, self-destructive exercise, a closed loop, and it's as repetitious as hell, utterly reductive.'
"I suppose so," Barry admits, before going on to explain his view.
From the chapter "On Decadence" (1992): "So the cyberpunk stories (which are already beginning to look thinly dated as the attention of the audience slips) simultaneously refract and direct response to the old Marxian alienation effect: deprived of any real connection to the consequences of our action, deprived in fact of any awareness of those consequences, we can elect a Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive to become those consequences, to utterly short-circuit the loop. Divination becomes prophecy becomes enactment becomes aftershock, all without any real necessity for crossing the boundaries, all within the closed and rocketing loop of feedback technology." . . . "[Cyberpunk] made narcissism a true and functional value and managed to link that narcissism to the continuing skein of the field . . . "
From "Over the Waves" (1993): "Crusaders we were in the fifties, we science fiction writers, and even though the pay was difficult and the outcome random we felt ourselves to be in the service of some large if not final purpose. Oh, how we grumbled under the strictures of editorial fiat, ah how we resented the unbelieving and retrograde litterateurs who regarded us as a sub-species! But we were comforted by our design, by the surface of our work, by the assurance of our purposes, by the whispers of Judith Merril who reminded us that the world, all of the world was science fiction and would come to our tangled and sullen land with gifts and praise, by the songs and dances of Anthony Boucher and his film and theater reviewer, Arthur Jean Cox, who knew that all of it, not just the pieces of earth which Merril regarded, was science fiction."
As part of the larger essay "Thus Our Words Unspoken" (1994), Malzberg relates the story (as told by Robert P. Mills) of how Daniel Keyes's classic story (and one of the best SF stories of all time) "Flowers for Algernon" came to be published, and published in F&SF. It seems Keyes had submitted it to Horace Gold at Galaxy. Gold said he would publish it only if Keyes made one crucial change: that Charlie not end up an imbecile at the end of the story, but remain a genius. Keyes refused and trunked the story. Then, on a shared train ride with F&SF editor Mills, Mills asked Keyes for a story. Keyes thought immediately of "Flowers" and began to describe it to Mills. Mills found it interesting, asked to see the ms., and upon reading it wanted to publish it . . . with one change. Keyes, assuming the worst, begged Mills not to ask him to change the end of the story. Mills said no, that the change he wanted was to add a girlfriend for Charlie. Keyes, relieved, agreed to the change, and we all know the rest of the story.
In a later chapter (several of which are devoted to individual authors) titled "Flowers for Daniel (Daniel Keyes)," (2000) Malzberg ends his total admiration for "Flowers" with this: "Here is what I think it means: that voice, the great voice of science fiction, the power of our medium, its resonance, vision, possibility, has created a body of literature which at its best could have been told in no other way. This great task, great burden, alchemy of spirit and machine, manages to somehow have subsumed all of its creators, has opened the way to the final mystery and its power to us all. We are made one with Algernon and Charlie Gordon before and after, yes certainly after, that great fall itself."
In this year which celebrates the 30th Anniversary of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (and the death of its namesake 15 years ago), I found it fascinating to learn what Malzberg had to say of Isaac Asimov. Written a year and a month after Asimov's death, Malzberg penned "On Isaac Asimov" (1992). He says of Isaac, in part: "Asimov was not the only binding figure by stature and chronologically; it is probable that he was so stylistically as well. Everyone after about 1945 either wrote like him or tried to write like him or tried to write unlike him; his was the voice which was either imitated or violently repelled but it was the reasonable, clarifying, paradigmatic voice of modern science fiction itself." Malzberg attributes this insight to John Clute. Further on, he says of Asimov's death: "This becomes, then, the death which is a stake through the shield; that first death beyond which there is no other. Heinlein was a strange brooding, isolated figure, sick and shielded by barbed wire and an obdurate wife and his own glare of fear and contempt for the audience. Sturgeon, a great writer in his time, had shrunk to near silence and clownishness; Bester, another great writer, had never attracted much attention outside the field and had in any case vanished from it utterly between 1950 and 1973, emerging only when the job at Holiday had folded up and he had to raise some new money. Simak was a beloved figure and a writer of no mean consequence but he had been no ambassador to the masses; isolated in Minnesota he had barely been an ambassador to himself. Judy Lynn del Rey was a much more important figure than almost any of us had recognized until very close to the end, but she had come to the field only through a kind of indirection and the period of her great influence lasted less than a decade. Asimov had been the single, the controlling, the central voice of the field for fifty years."
Along with the essay on Asimov, there are essays just as personally revealing about Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.), Damon Knight (this one, I humbly admit to soliciting when editor of the SFWA Bulletin, on the occasion of Knight's death), Fredric Brown, Robert Silverberg, William F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster), David Drake, Gustav Hasford, J. G. Ballard, Cornell Woolrich, Maurice Girodias, yet another about John W. Campbell, and a tribute to one of the (mostly) long-forgotten Hugo winners ever: Mark Clifton.
While Breakfast in the Ruins is steeped in despair and the dark side of science fiction, from the viewpoint of someone who has been in the field for more than fifty years, there are essays extolling its virtues, lauding some of its practitioners, and others which reveal insights rare and valuable. It is as if the author had had high hopes for science fiction but had come to the realization—long ago—that somewhere SF took a wrong turn, had lost itself for whatever reason, and could never again find itself, its explicit promise and haughty vision bought into by so many of its early practitioners left unrequited, overwhelmed by forces over which it had no control.
In his introduction to the current edition, Malzberg states: "This is a work about losing and losers, conceived and executed in that mode. 'The history of science fiction is a history of failure' I wrote somewhere a long time ago and Engines of the Night was an attempt to explain why this was so."
Is Malzberg's disheartened, disillusioned vision of the SF field an accurate portrayal? Has SF squandered its place in the heavens, given what it could have been if only enough of its own practitioners had taken it as seriously as did Malzberg, and those of like mind such as Mark Clifton for but one example, who wrote about the possibilities for human evolution as serious considerations, but upon first contact with fandom and its ancillary foolishness began to despair himself? Is it out of a tarnished love of the field that Malzberg so harshly criticizes a failed love affair with the genre? Does this diminish his observations and opinions, or clarify them, the veil of emotion now stripped away? Only by reading the book itself will any of these answers become clearer, if not answered fully, or to your satisfaction, for like most of us Malzberg is a human being full of contradiction in his individual pursuit of perfection.
And maybe this is why Malzberg is like so many of us; we seek perfection, and when out of our grasp we rail against the truth we can never quite touch.
Breakfast in the Ruins is Malzberg's fascinating, deeply emotional, lifelong journey in search of a science fiction he (and others) once dreamt of, held the highest hopes for, but learned was not to be. It is at times brilliant, and at others unspeakably sad. But most of all it is a thought-provoking, challenging, seriously entertaining look at the underbelly of the Beast and should hold a place of prominence on every SF aficionado's bookshelf. In the library. Right where this psychologically stripped-bare-naked collection of cautionary personal essays belongs.
Theodore Sturgeon is renowned for his defining quote, "Ask the next question." For the sometimes unpopular areas of inquiry Malzberg opens here, he can justly be called the ultimate iconoclast. Unfortunately, this has led to some marking him as a pariah.
Maybe Breakfast isn't so much just another critically-oriented brick in the wall as it is one of the necessary cornerstones, by way of crucial reminder that science fiction's history is not only defined by its fleeting successes, its Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards of the moment, but by its loss of direction and initial purpose, the lives of those authors who deserved better and are now forgotten, and, in Malzberg's studied estimation, were destroyed by the genre mill (and in some instances, as Malzberg makes the case, literally gave their lives for it).
Breakfast in the Ruins is a must addition to every serious SF collector's library, student of the field, and those seeking in the future to avoid the field's historical missteps, if such is possible. Praise to Baen Books for publishing it.
In collaboration with Mike Resnick, Barry Malzberg's current non-fiction writings can be found in every quarterly issue of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (one need not be a member of SFWA to subscribe to the Bulletin). Separately, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg also write quarterly columns for the online SF magazine Jim Baen's Universe.
Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium
October 21, 2007
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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