#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999
The Popular Tradition of Science Fiction Criticism, 1926-1980
It has been, by any measure, one of history’s most extensive discussions about one particular branch of literature. The conversation was started in the 1920s by the editors and writers of American pulp magazines, who offered their thoughts in editorials, blurbs, articles, reviews, and ancillary materials; next, readers joined in with letters, followed by editorial replies and additional responses from other readers. The dialogue then moved outside the magazines into private correspondence, personal interactions at meetings and conventions, newsletters and amateur magazines called fanzines, and critical studies and bibliographies published by small presses. At first a conversation primarily involving Americans, it soon spread to England and Europe and, eventually, to countries all over the world. And before the last few decades, it has been a discussion with relatively little participation or input from those people formally trained and officially qualified to discuss literature. For want of a better term, call it the popular tradition of science fiction criticism.
As no one can credibly deny, Hugo Gernsback was the man who launched this tradition and established its initial agenda, and some of his contributions are almost universally acknowledged: that he began publishing the first true science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926; that by means of skillful marketing and proselytizing, he persuaded his readers, other publishers, and eventually the entire world to believe in the existence of “science fiction” as a distinct category of literature; that he brought previously separated people with an interest in science fiction together, both informally through his magazines’ letter columns and formally by founding the first fan organization, the Science Fiction League; and that he thus set in motion the process that culminated in the vast science fiction community that we observe today. My own recurring argument that Gernsback represented the first major critic, and remains the most important critic, of science fiction is acknowledged less universally, although historians of the genre will invariably quote from a Gernsback editorial or two to convey, at least, that he did present some ideas regarding the nature and purpose of science fiction.
Still, in light of the many commentaries on science fiction written before Gernsback’s era, now systematically documented by Arthur B. Evans, one might challenge the importance and originality of Gernsback’s work; just as Sam J. Lundwall once charged that “in a sense ... Americans had stolen” a “heritage” of European science fiction literature, “transforming it and vulgarizing it and changing it beyond recognition” (1977, 201), one might charge that Gernsback’s only contribution was to steal and vulgarize a tradition of science fiction criticism.
There are two points to make in response. First, like everyone else of his era, Gernsback had only a limited awareness of previous commentaries and no sense that there even existed a previous “tradition” of science fiction criticism to build upon or steal from. Second, despite some resonances with the ideas of earlier commentators, Gernsback’s theories of science fiction significantly differed from preceding efforts in several important respects.
What Gernsback knew about previous commentaries on science fiction can be quickly summarized. As I noted in 1996, Gernsback published—and almost certainly wrote—a 1911 review of Mark Wicks’s To Mars via the Moon which echoed its “Preface,” and that book surely influenced both Gernsback’s fiction and his ideas about science fiction.1 As the publisher of George Allan England’s 1923 story “The Thing from—Outside,” Gernsback may have read his “Facts about Fantasy” (1923) or engaged in conversations or correspondence with him about science fiction. Gernsback’s strong affinity for the works of Jules Verne probably brought him into contact with some comments on those works, by Verne himself and others, and perhaps even discussions on other writers like Poe and Wells of whom Gernsback was less enamored. However, Gernsback almost certainly never read any contemporary book reviews, literary magazines, prefaces to literary works, or critical studies, and did not research such materials from previous eras; names like Félix Bodin, William Wilson, and Edgar Fawcett were unknown to him. So, like others before him, Gernsback developed most of his ideas about science fiction entirely on his own, unaware that earlier commentators had made similar observations.
Moreover, Gernsback did more than unknowingly echo what others had already said about science fiction. To explain exactly how his commentaries differed from previous examples, I can offer this alliterative list:
Completeness. Gernsback defined the basic characteristics of science fiction, described several different purposes in and different audiences for science fiction, argued for the unique importance of science fiction, and sketched out a history of the genre. Even aspects of science fiction seemingly neglected in his editorial pronouncements, like the use of science fiction as a vehicle for satire and social commentary, surfaced at least occasionally in comments on individual works published in Amazing Stories, like the blurb to H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau which stated that “it is our opinion that Mr. Wells has tried to sketch a travesty upon human beings” (1926, 637).
Conviction. Gernsback sincerely believed that science fiction was an important genre and took it very seriously. While his innovative suggestion that science fiction stories might describe future inventions so carefully as to justify patents is regularly ridiculed, that idea played a key role in validating science fiction as a uniquely significant form of literature that could play a role in not only predicting, but actually creating, the future, making the genre “a world-force of unparalleled magnitude” (“The Science Fiction League,” 1934, 1062). In contrast, one observes England lightheartedly discussing the genre as little more than a profitable shell game, while Brian Stableford notes that “It is surely a sad discovery to find H.G. Wells, in the preface to his collected scientific romances, offering embarrassed and sarcastic excuses for ever having written them, and promising (after the fashion of a flasher begging mercy from a magistrate) not to do it again now that he has seen the error of his ways” (1985, 331-33).
Context. Other previous commentators sometimes discussed science fiction as a form of literature to come only in the future (like Bodin) or as one represented only by a single example (like Wilson). Gernsback not only regularly connected his ideas to authors now esteemed as science fiction pioneers, like Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edward Bellamy (all listed in his first Amazing Stories editorial), but he also published monthly magazines featuring several old and new examples of the form which were discussed in lengthy introductory blurbs that habitually strove to relate the stories, however tendentiously, to Gernsback’s theories. Composition teachers who regularly urge student writers to support their ideas with specific evidence and examples will understand why Gernsback’s commentaries, buttressed with a wealth of such support, had more impact than other analyses that lacked such a range of older and contemporary illustrative examples.
Communication. Unlike earlier commentators who expressed their ideas in a review here or preface there which usually were little read and quickly forgotten, Gernsback repeated his arguments about science fiction every month, for three years in a magazine with a circulation over 100,000, and for several years thereafter in other national magazines. Other publishers noticed his success and produced magazines that paid lip service to his ideas even if they did not exactly follow them; readers absorbed his arguments and wrote letters in response to them; Gernsback’s term “science fiction” crept into the dictionaries and into public discourse; and sporadic outbursts of commentary on science fiction were supplanted by a true, continuing conversation. It is Gernsback’s ability to forcefully communicate his ideas, and to elicit a strong response to those ideas, that most clearly separates him from all his predecessors; and, if no other documentation is provided, the sheer bulk of science fiction criticism after Gernsback, in contrast to the intermittent commentaries before Gernsback, conclusively demonstrates his enormous impact.
The first clear statement of Gernsback’s theories came in the first issue of Amazing Stories, where Gernsback announced that “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (“A New Sort of Magazine,” 1926, 3).2 He thus began to establish a distinguished literary history for his proclaimed genre, and he clearly defined its three basic elements: “charming romance,” a narrative framework, later described in less elevated terms as “thrilling adventure” (“Science Fiction Week,” 1930, 1061); “scientific fact,” lengthy explanations of present-day scientific principles incorporated into the story; and “prophetic vision,” detailed descriptions of possible new scientific discoveries or inventions.
Science fiction correspondingly had three functions: the narrative could provide “entertainment,” the scientific information could furnish a scientific “education,” and the accounts of new inventions could offer “inspiration” to inventors, who might proceed to actually build the proposed invention or something similar to it. Correspondingly, there were three natural audiences for science fiction: the general public, seeking to be entertained; younger readers, yearning to be educated about science; and working scientists and inventors, anxious to find some stimulating new ideas.
By means of editorial comments and republication of older works, Gernsback also presented an early picture of the history of science fiction: an era of little conspicuous activity before 1800; a century of isolated pioneers inspired by the Industrial Revolution and other scientific advances, beginning with Poe and prominently including Verne and Wells; and the modern era, marked by vast increases in the number of science fiction works and by the growing prominence of Gernsback’s own vision.
Without a doubt, Gernsback’s simplistic but persuasive set of ideas had a powerful impact on the early readers and writers of science fiction, since his arguments are regularly recapitulated in readers’ letters and in their more extended commentaries of the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, while one might attempt to explain away the letters and “Guest Editorials” found in Gernsback’s magazines—suggesting that they resulted from Gernsback’s ideologically selective publication, from readers eager to win contests attempting to curry favor with Gernsback, or even from Gernsback making up supportive letters—the fact that editorials and letters echoing those ideas also appeared in the magazines of Gernsback’s early competitors would seem inarguable evidence of his substantive influence.
But Gernsback himself did not remain a major force in the field for very long: in 1929, he lost control of Amazing Stories, the new magazines he launched were not as successful, and in 1936 he sold his remaining magazine, Wonder Stories, and abandoned the field, though he continued writing science fiction and occasionally reappeared. When Gernsback retreated, other editors in the 1930s temporarily assumed leading roles in contributing to and supervising the continuing discussion of science fiction, though none offered any noteworthy innovations or departures from Gernsback’s original theories. In fact, most of them sought only to truncate, or weaken, his ideas.
Gernsback’s former assistant T. O’Conor Sloane, who edited Amazing Stories from 1929 to 1938, began presenting a slightly different picture of science fiction in his very first editorial: “The basic idea of the magazine was the publication of fiction, founded on, or embodying always some touch of natural science.... To [our authors] it is a pleasure we are sure, to enter the realm of fiction, and use their knowledge there, for the instruction, as well as amusement of their readers” (1929, 103). Sloane’s definition of science fiction—“fiction, founded on, or embodying always some touch of natural science”—included only fiction and science, with no mention of prophecy or prediction, and his announced purposes for the genre included only “instruction” and “amusement,” with no mention of providing stimulating ideas for scientists or, indeed, of engaging in any serious effort to offer predictions of the future. Refusing to acknowledge those aspects of science fiction that made the genre most interesting and potentially most important, Sloane’s magazines, perhaps inevitably, seemed languid in contrast to the exuberance of Gernsback’s magazines.
Three other major editors—Harry Bates, the first editor of Astounding Stories of Super-Science (later Astounding Stories); Mort Weisinger, first editor of Wonder Stories under new owners who renamed it Thrilling Wonder Stories; and Ray Palmer, who succeeded Sloane as editor of Amazing Stories—reduced Gernsback’s agenda in another way, neglecting the elements of science and education while continuing to profess a lasting commitment to them. Thus, even though Bates’s first editorial announcement sounded congruent with Gernsback’s ideas—“ASTOUNDING STORIES ... is a magazine whose stories will anticipate the scientific achievements of To-morrow [sic]—whose stories will not only be strictly accurate in their science but will be vividly, dramatically, and thrillingly told” (cited in Clarke, 1989, 8-9)—he noticeably places more emphasis on the stories’ narrative qualities than on their scientific qualities (reflecting his private opinion that Gernsback’s Amazing Stories was “awful stuff.... Cluttered with trivia! Packed with puerility. Written by unimaginables!” and that his magazine should emphasize “story elements of action and adventure,” not science [“Editorial Number One,” 1930, x, xiii].) A similar concern for exciting narrative can be detected in opening remarks from editors Weisinger—“Our objective will always be to provide the most thrilling and entertaining fiction possible—while never ignoring basic scientific truths” (10)—and Palmer—”Insofar as the basic subject matter is founded upon scientific research, it will be essentially a true story magazine although thrilling tenseness of adventure will still form a part of the many features yet to come” (8).
Yet the major science fiction magazine editor of the 1930s, F. Orlin Tremaine of Astounding Stories, embraced Gernsback’s complete picture of the genre as fiction, science, and prophecy—speaking of one “story that ... those of you who like carefully projected scientific thought will like” (“Ad Astra,” 1936, 7)—and agreed that it could provide entertainment, education, and stimulating ideas: “There is no more interesting or educational reading anywhere” (“Star Dust,” 1936, 65). Tremaine stated that “Astounding Stories holds a unique and important place in scientific achievement.... Perhaps we dream—but we do so logically, and science follows in the footsteps of our dreams” (“Blazing New Trails,” 1936, 153). However, in addition to both announcing and demonstrating his increased attention to the literary quality of science fiction, Tremaine significantly departed from Gernsback’s agenda in one respect: his picture of the characteristic audience for science fiction. Whereas Gernsback had aspired to a mass audience, Tremaine argued that science fiction readers were by nature a small, elite group, “members of that inner circle who see and understand a vision that is beyond the ken of the vast multitude” (“Looking Ahead,” 1936, 155).
In discussing science fiction commentaries of the 1930s, one naturally focuses on magazine editors, since the pulp magazines of that era remained the genre’s most widely read, influential, and accessible publications. But other publications were taking note of science fiction, most notably writer’s magazines, which began publishing articles explaining how to write science fiction. The first of these came from Gernsback himself—“How to Write ‘Science’ Stories,” in the February 1930 issue of Writer’s Digest—but other such articles would soon follow from writers like S.P. Meek, Ross Rocklynne, and Henry Kuttner.
Also during the 1930s, growing numbers of fan organizations and individual fans also started to produce their own publications, the fanzines, which collectively represent a vast and largely unexplored territory for science fiction scholars. While the fanzines of the 1930s did vary wildly in quality and included large amounts of inconsequential material, some of their contents have had a lasting impact: from Harry Warner, Jr., for instance, we learn that the enduring terms “B.E.M.” (for Bug-Eyed Monster) and “space opera” both originated in early fanzines (1969, 234, 41). Since both represent pejorative references to the illustrations and stories then appearing in the science fiction magazines, they illustrate the important role that the fanzines could play: as forums for commentary beyond the control of magazine editors, they could provide vigorous, even acidic criticisms of the contents of those magazines. Further, by displaying at least occasional discontent with the routine space adventures of the era, they anticipated later critical voices and helped to inspire the reforms and improvements of the 1940s often attributed (incorrectly, I have argued) solely to the editorial genius of John W. Campbell, Jr.
As one example of what the fanzines were doing, four essays by Clyde F. Beck that appeared in one fanzine, The Science Fiction Critic, along with a newly written “Author’s Preface,” were gathered together in 1937 and published as Hammer and Tongs. While both tiny (only 28 pages of text, plus a one-page bibliography) and obscure (only a small number of copies were published by the same California amateur press that produced The Science Fiction Critic), Hammer and Tongs qualifies as the first book devoted entirely to science fiction criticism. And while Beck apologized in his preface for his failure “to formulate a sketch of a system of criticism of this new type of romance” (ix), he nonetheless makes an interesting effort to blend the principles of H.G. Wells (with which he is familiar and to which he repeatedly refers) and the concerns of Gernsback and contemporary fans.
Like some later commentators, Beck dislikes the term “science fiction,” “which not only is self-contradictory, but does not properly define the type of story to which it is applied” (viii). Accepting Wells’s principle that the science is there simply to provide an air of verisimilitude, Beck suggests that the term “pseudo-scientific fantasy” would be more appropriate (ix). In his nearest approach to a complete definition of the genre, he lists “the three things fundamental to good science fiction”: the author “has founded the plot upon a plausible development of scientific theory, he has maintained an atmosphere of reality in unfamiliar circumstances, and he has shown to a certain extent a consciousness of purpose in writing” (5). Noting that “This last is perhaps the most often lacking in contemporary science fiction,” Beck demonstrates a strong interest in purposes beyond Gernsback’s, declaring that “its possibilities for allegorical satire and imaginative projection of present social trends are unparalleled” (5). Anticipating the concerns of later critics for stronger characterization in science fiction, he states that “The author is free of space and time, of the imposed restraint of our present discontents; but all too often he forgets that he is not free of men and women, that he must write of real people after all if he is to interest real people” (xiv). And comments about individual authors and stories can be much more scathing than anything a magazine would have printed: “writers such as Van Lorne, Skidmore, Jones, and the like are continually fouling the pages of the magazines with illiterate, maudlin, or merely foolish drivel” (16).
When Beck complains about the “loose thinking of authors, who with or without degrees, abandon in writing science fiction the vigorous habit of mind which is the prime requisite of science,” however, and goes on to point out their frequent “misuse of scientific terms” (2), he conveys the strong concern for scientific accuracy that was characteristic of Gernsback-era commentators. Thus, in emphasizing both literary values and scientific accuracy, Beck seems to anticipate the later criticism of Damon Knight and James Blish, though Hammer and Tongs was far too brief and fleeting a discourse to have any lasting impact on the field.
The next major figure in the popular tradition of science fiction criticism was John W. Campbell, Jr., who assumed editorial control of Astounding Stories in 1937 and came to dominate the field in the 1940s by publishing superior new writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt, and offering his own vigorous, and increasingly pugnacious, editorial commentaries.
While Campbell accepted Gernsback’s three defining principles—fiction, science, and prophecy—he broadened all three to identify and celebrate expanded possibilities in the genre. Not merely “charming romance” or “thrilling adventure,” science fiction, according to Campbell, could adopt a wide variety of generic models; he also announced on several occasions that good writing skills and strong characterization were key elements in science fiction stories (though many felt that the stories he published increasingly failed to reflect such priorities). The presentation of scientific data was still important, but it could be accomplished, in the manner of Heinlein, with brief comments and indirect references; Campbell also broadened the concept of “science” to include fields like the social sciences and parapsychology as potential material for stories. And the prophecies of science fiction had to involve not only plausible new inventions, but consideration of how those inventions might affect human society, so that writers would have to develop a detailed picture of an imagined future world that incorporates those inventions.
Campbell’s discussions of science fiction also explained, far more than Gernsback’s had, how science fiction should be written: the author begins with an innovative idea, then employs a process of scientific thinking, or extrapolation, to develop a complete background from that idea, and finally allows a narrative to evolve out of that background; ideally, the story will naturally emerge almost by itself from the background material, without conscious craftsmanship.
In describing the purposes of science fiction, Campbell accepted Gernsback’s goals of entertainment, education, and stimulating ideas, but he also focused on several new purposes: by presenting challenging scientific puzzles to solve, science fiction stories might train young people to think more scientifically; more broadly, science fiction stories could provide analyses of possible new scientific innovations—to anticipate problems before they occur—and imaginative reconsiderations of past and present situations. In these ways, science fiction could be “a way of considering the past, present, and future from a different viewpoint, and taking a look at how else we might do things ... a convenient analog system for thinking about new scientific, social, and economic ideas—and for re-examining old ideas” (“Introduction” to Prologue to Analog, 1962, 10, 13). Oddly, even as he expanded the purposes of science fiction, he followed Tremaine in limiting the genre’s envisioned audience, regarding it as too demanding for the general public or young people without a strong interest in science.
Finally, while his discussions of science fiction history were less frequent and less prominent than Gernsback’s, Campbell during his career did articulate two interestingly divergent visions of science fiction history. First, he claimed that it primarily represented a modern literature whose first major practitioner was H. G. Wells: “Science-fiction finds no counterpart in the entertainment of history” (“Future Tense,” 1939, 6). Later, he argued that science fiction represented a long and distinguished literary tradition that included many distinguished authors of the past: “While most people tend to think of [science fiction] as being Jules Verne and H.G. Wells up-to-date, perhaps we might better remember that the tradition goes back earlier to Gulliver’s Travels and even to Aesop’s Fables” (“Introduction” to Cloak of Aesir, 1952, 13-14).
Overall, in articulating a broader and more sophisticated vision of what science fiction was, how it should be written, why it should be written, and where it came from, Campbell both harkened back to some of the ideas of commentators before Gernsback and laid the groundwork for modern critical approaches to science fiction.
Before 1950, the history of the popular tradition of science fiction criticism can properly focus on the major figures of Gernsback and Campbell. After 1950, such a narrow focus is no longer possible, for from 1950 to 1980 there were many influential commentators talking about science fiction, and all of them played a role in the tradition and deserve some attention. A few figures are more important than others, but even these others are important in part as representatives of larger movements.
In every sense of the word, what happened to science fiction in the 1950s was indeed an explosion. There was a tremendous increase in the amount of material written and published as science fiction, in a plethora of new magazines and in hardcover and paperback books; many writers went beyond traditional markets to present science fiction in a variety of new forums; and science fiction became prominent in the media of films and television. Accompanying this explosion, many new commentators of note emerged, and these can be roughly grouped into four categories: new magazine editors, book reviewers, anthologists, and editors and authors of books about science fiction.
There were, of course, other science fiction editors besides Campbell in the 1940s, but other than Palmer—who faded from prominence by the end of the decade—they generally had little impact on the field. In the 1950s, however, two major new magazines emerged. One of these—The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, first edited by Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher, then by Boucher alone—chose to be somewhat reticent in proclaiming attitudes and theories about science fiction. They published no editorials or readers’ letters, offering commentaries only in the form of book reviews by Boucher and others. Still, the magazine’s intent (evident in its title) to blur distinctions between science fiction and fantasy and its manifest commitment to literary quality were undoubtedly influential even if it policies were not explicitly proclaimed. Judith Merril has argued for Boucher as the major figure of science fiction in the 1950s:
He brought literary standards and literary status, both, into the specialty field.... He approached his editorship with a revolutionary concept: the idea that science-fantasy (as he preferred to call the whole field of rational-imaginative-speculative fiction) could be well-written.
Boucher carried this to an unheard-of extreme. He would not buy a story just for the idea; he had to like the writing....
Boucher’s function as book reviewer was no less important than as editor. He had, at least part of the time, brilliant competition.... But for the writers, it was Boucher’s accolades that counted, and for thousands of new readers of s-f books, it was Boucher’s guidance they trusted.
I said earlier that science fiction today is catching up with science; Anthony Boucher was the dominant force in the fifties when science fiction began to catch up with fiction. (“What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?” 1966, 79-80)
The other editor, H.L. Gold of Galaxy, was more loquacious. His editorials and introductions to anthologies generally offered little more than restatements of Campbell’s principles: he said that the “job [of science fiction] is simply to speculate, skillfully and intelligently and dramatically and above all entertainingly, on any and every possibility we can fashion out of observable fact, theory, hypothesis, and outright guesses” (“Introduction,” 1959, ix) and said the science fiction writer must “extrapolate, which is the process of taking a known fact or theory of today and carrying it just as far as imaginative logic can take it” (“In This Corner,” 1959, ix). Thus, Gold accepted Campbell’s idea that science fiction is a literature based on scientific “fact or theory” imaginatively extended through “extrapolation.” And in one comment on science fiction history, he seemed inclined to accept the expansive view of the later Campbell, listing only ancient writers as the possible originators of the form: “There is no way of setting the birth date of science fiction. Some authorities claim that Plato was the father. Other authorities trace paternity back to Homer, the Bible” (“Program Notes,” 1958, ix).
However, Gold did offer some changes. First, although an early contest involving flying saucers was said to have “a scientific intent” (“For Adults Only,” 1950, 3), Gold wrote little about scientific content and scientific accuracy in science fiction, and he largely abandoned efforts to defend science fiction as a way of inspiring future inventions or considering future possibilities, since “science fiction is not in the prediction business” (“Program Notes,” 1958, xi). When a reference to science appeared in Gold’s writing, it was given little prominence; he said once that “What science fiction must present entertainingly is speculation. Not prophecy, but fictional surmises based on present factors, scientific, social, political, cultural, or whatever” (“Step Outside,” 1951, 2).
Instead of discussing the scientific value of science fiction, Gold placed greater emphasis on its literary value. An early editorial claimed that “We are inducing fine writers in other branches of literature to try their hand in science fiction” (“It’s All Yours,” 1950, 3) and said that his policy “merely applies the standards of any legitimate branch of literature to science fiction” (“Yardstick for Science Fiction,” 1951, 3). He particularly called for more mature and thought-provoking stories: his first editorial proclaimed that
Science fiction, everybody agrees, or seems to, has finally come of age.... GALAXY Science Fiction proposes to carry the maturity of this type of literature into the science fiction magazine field, where it is now, unfortunately, somewhat hard to find. It establishes a compound break with both the lurid and the stodgy traditions of s-f magazine publishing. From cover design to advertising selections, GALAXY Science Fiction intends to be a mature magazine for mature readers. (“For Adults Only,” 1950, 2)
He said in his second editorial that “We have challenged writers to present themes that could not be sold elsewhere ... themes that are too adult, too profound or revolutionary in concept for other magazines to risk publishing” (“It’s All Yours,” 1950, 3). In these ways, Gold claimed that “GALAXY and its writers were opening new paths in science fiction” (“Ask a Foolish Question,” 1951, 159).
Despite these early assertions of the seriousness and maturity of science fiction, Gold also placed stress on the role of science fiction as pure entertainment: “The first goal” of science fiction, he said, “is entertainment .... [which] ranges all the vast distance from staring through keyholes to staring through telescopes, from racetracks to treatises, scatology to seismography” (“Step Outside,” 1951, 2). Thus, while his magazine became famous—or notorious—for heavy-handed satire, Gold did not announce such goals for science fiction; it was according to his statements simply a medium for providing well-crafted and entertaining stories. (Ironically, it was the later Campbell who would place more emphasis on science fiction as social commentary.) Thus, as Sloane to some extent reduced and trivialized Gernsback’s arguments for science fiction, Gold to some extent reduced and trivialized Campbell’s arguments for science fiction—though he must be commended as an editor for the quality of fiction he published in the 1950s, which was far superior to that of Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction during that decade.
While Astounding Science-Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy are generally seen as the major magazines of the 1950s, Damon Knight has also praised Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, edited by Samuel Merwin, Jr. from 1944 to 1951 and afterwards by Samuel Mines, as “successful and influential.... [Merwin] upgraded the magazines to a point about equidistant among the three leaders” (“Beauty, Stupidity, Injustice, and Science Fiction,” 1990, 79). Ashley lauds Samuel Mines as “a key figure in furthering the frontiers of science fiction ... [who] challenged writers to experiment with daring themes” and celebrates his decision to publish Philip José Farmer’s controversial The Lovers (“Introduction: From Bomb to Boom,” 1976, 89-90).3 If Mervin and Mines remain obscure, unlike the reviewing Boucher and the editorializing Gold, it is undoubtedly because they offered no striking pronouncements or extended analyses of science fiction, primarily influencing the development of science fiction by their editorial decisions.
In the 1950s, science fiction criticism first became a regular and respected activity, most prominently taking the form of regular book reviews in magazines and amateur publications. Four figures deserve special mention.
The first two figures are Damon Knight and James Blish. Knight was the first person, despite his achievements as a writer and editor, to gain a reputation primarily as a science fiction critic, and the first person to win a Hugo Award for his criticism, collected in his 1956 book In Search of Wonder (revised and expanded in 1967). He burst onto the scene in 1945 with a blistering attack on the logic and style of A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A; and in his 1952 introduction to a series of reviews in Science Fiction Adventures, reprinted in In Search of Wonder (1956), Knight offered this critical manifesto:
As a critic, I operate under certain basic assumptions, all eccentric, to wit:
1. That the term “science fiction” is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, “speculative fiction,” is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like “The Saturday Evening Post,” it means what we point to when we say it.
2. That a publisher’s jacket blurb and a book review are two different things, and should be composed accordingly.
3. That science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously, and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it: e.g., originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, garden-variety grammar.
4. That a bad book hurts science fiction more than ten bad notices. (1)
A few years later, Blish, as “William Atheling, Jr.,” began writing reviews of science fiction magazines for various amateur and semi-professional magazines; his columns were collected in The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970). Like Knight, Blish began with a statement of critical principles:
The function of a critic in this field, as it is in others, is two-fold: First of all, he must ask that editors and writers be conscious of the minimum standards of competence which apply in the writing of all fiction; secondly, he must make reasonably clear to his non-professional readers what those standards of competence are.... Technical competence in story-telling is of course not the sole factor which turns a piece of fiction into a work of art. Freshness of idea, acuity of observation, depth of emotional penetration are all crucial; and there are other such factors. But technical competence is the one completely indispensable ingredient.... For the few antibiotic-resistant cases who insist that science fiction is too aberrant a medium to be judged by the standards of other kinds of fiction, we can reply flatly and without much desire to be polite that we are not interested in any form of fiction which cuts itself off from human life and human values. (The Issue at Hand 13-14)
There are three interesting features in the approaches of Knight and Blish.
First, for the first time in the history of the popular tradition, we are encountering science fiction commentators who explicit identify themselves as critics. Interestingly, Boucher’s introduction to the first edition of In Search of Wonder also argued that “All the rest of us ... are primarily reviewers; damon knight [sic], in most of his published assessments of science fiction and particularly in those gathered here, is a critic” (vi).
Second, like Gold, Knight and Blish insisted that science fiction be judged by “ordinary critical standards” and “the minimum standards of competence which apply in the writing of all fiction.” In a sense, this was nothing new, since both Gernsback and Campbell outwardly agreed that science fiction should pay heed to literary values. But those men also devised special apologies for the genre’s literary lapses: when a reader complained about “tripe” in a recent issue of Wonder Stories, an editor replied, “The art of writing these stories is young” (“The Reader Speaks,” 1931, 132). And, discussing the difficulty of creating a thoroughly worked-out background for a science fiction story, Campbell maintained that “science-fiction is an extremely difficult medium in which to produce good work—really good work” (“Introduction,” The Man Who Sold the Moon, 1950, 12). So Gernsback implied that science fiction should be judged by special and lenient standards because it is such a new genre, and Campbell suggested that science fiction should be judged by special and lenient standards because it is such an unusually hard genre. But Knight—implicitly—and Blish—explicitly—brushed these claims of special privilege aside.
In essence, both men advocated practicing what Campbell had preached—stories that broke away from conventional boundaries, stories with involving characters, stories that addressed science and its issues in imaginative and provocative ways—and, in their critiques of particular novels and stories, they repeatedly insisted on certain standards: logical plotting, realistic characterization, and a competent prose style.
Employing the standards of all fiction, Knight promised to regularly give “bad notices” to works that deserved them, and Blish announced that “criticism, if it is to be of any use at all, must among other things be merciless” (The Issue at Hand 22). And they therefore announced the end of science fiction’s era of boosterism. When the genre was just beginning, and its writers were few and untalented, enthusiasts nevertheless tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, to promote all works of science fiction as worthwhile regardless of their quality, and harsh critiques like Beck’s—at least in widely distributed publications—were rare. Now, with the genre well established and many talented writers working in the field, it was time to improve the genre by, among other things, criticizing inferior works. Knight said it is valuable to “rip a bad work of art to shreds” so one can “find out how it is made” (22)—and thus to learn how to make one better; Blish similarly argued that “the whole point of telling a man he is doing something the wrong way is the hope that next time he will do it right” (More Issues at Hand 1-2).
Third, Knight and Blish moved away from the obsessive concern for scientific explanation and prediction that preoccupied Gernsback and Campbell. Knight suggested that the term used to describe the genre should not even include the word “science” (and in the 1960s, some commentators would actually attempt to replace Gernsback’s term with Knight’s preferred “speculative fiction”). And responding to editor Kendell Foster Crossen’s call to “throw the science out of science fiction,” Blish said, “To be sure, the story’s the thing” (The Issue at Hand 45, 46). Still, both men paid attention to the quality of the science in science fiction. Arguing against Alfred Bester’s position that “the science in [a science fiction story] is unimportant,” Knight responded, “When Bester suggests that people don’t turn to science fiction for information, of course he’s right; but people don’t turn to s.f. for misinformation, either” (6). And while criticizing Charles Eric Maine’s High Vacuum, Knight defined these standards:
For the record, again, I don’t expect any science fiction writer to do graduate work in physics before he writes a space opera. If a writer makes a blunder in higher mathematics or theoretical physics, he is safe from me—I am no expert, and will never notice it. The gross errors in this novel are in the area of common knowledge (as if a Western hero should saddle up a pueblo and ride off down the cojone); any one of them could have been corrected by ten minutes with a dictionary or an encyclopedia. (In Search of Wonder 100)
Blish agreed that “respect for facts ... is fundamental to fiction, not just science fiction alone, but all fiction” (The Issue at Hand 46).
In a way, then, Knight and Blish seemed to return to the rather more lax standards of Bates, Weisinger, and Palmer—the notion that a tremendous amount of freedom in dealing with science in science fiction is permissible so long as one does not “ignor[e] basic scientific truths.” The difference is that Knight’s and Blish’s commitment to scientific accuracy is muted but sincere; when they notice obvious errors, they chastise them rather severely. Thus, unlike the earlier magazines that attempted to minimize the scientific factor, Knight and Blish do take science seriously, even while agreeing that it is not the only important issue.
While their reviews thus balanced an insistence on “ordinary critical standards” with some attentiveness to scientific accuracy, they did not always place emphasis on the latter factor, primarily because, perhaps, they saw no need to do so; Knight has privately commented that “I don’t think either of us ever said that science (broadly defined) was not central to the genre. If we didn’t spend much time on that, it was because the importance of ‘science’ (meaning speculation about other worlds, the future, imaginary inventions, etc.) was universally taken for granted” (Letter to Gary Westfahl, March 6, 1992). Persons reading their reviews and noting the stress on literary values, however, could easily get the impression that “ordinary critical standards” were in fact the central issue; and one feature of the subsequent New Wave movement was an effort to further minimize the genre’s emphasis on scientific matters.
This parallel discussion is not meant to imply that Knight and Blish were identical in their approach and their impact. Knight primarily reviewed science fiction books, while Blish concentrated on the magazines; Knight maintained a breezy and accessible style, while Blish—perhaps trapped by the pseudonym of Atheling—sometimes affected an irritatingly pompous manner; and Knight published in mainstream magazines while Blish wrote for amateur magazines, so that Knight undoubtedly had more visibility and influence.
A third reviewer, P. Schuyler Miller, generally receives little attention or respect—Malcolm J. Edwards notes that he “was not a particularly demanding critic” (1993, 399); but he did write a monthly column of reviews for Astounding Science-Fiction and its successor Analog for twenty-four years—from 1951 to his death in 1974—making him by far the most prolific science fiction reviewer. And while he was not as highly esteemed as Knight or Blish for his critical acumen, Miller also had some influence on the field. For example, he was the first person to use the term “hard science fiction,” and his scattered comments on the form during the early 1960s helped to establish the nature and boundaries of that subgenre; he was also the first to use the expression “new wave” in reference to British writers of the 1960s.4 Other columns devote a considerable amount of serious attention to juvenile science fiction, along with occasional discussion of older science fiction “classics” and fantasy. His contribution, then, may have been to make readers more aware of the various subcategories of science fiction that were then emerging, arguing in effect that these deserved special consideration instead of lumping all works together simply as “science fiction.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, a fourth major reviewer emerged, science fiction writer Algis Budrys, whose sharp and idiosyncratic reviews for Galaxy were eventually published in book form as Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf in 1985.
The first hardcover anthology of science fiction to appear was Groff Conklin’s 1946 The Best of Science Fiction (though Adventures through Space and Time, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, was actually the first to be prepared and accepted for publication). In his introduction, attempting to present science fiction to a wider audience, Conklin in one way followed the approach of Gernsback, dignifying the genre by placing it in the context of an extended literary history. He first accepted the early nineteenth century as the time the genre originated, stating that “the modern concept of science fiction, though it remained without the name, began at about the time when science itself began to have a broad, popular interest” (xxi), and went on to discuss The Moon Hoax, Poe, Fitz-James O’Brien, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, H. Rider Haggard, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before listing “the elder statesmen of modern science fiction” as Wells, George Allan England, Garrett P. Serviss and others” (xxi-xxii). And he praised Gernsback, who “will always be remembered by both writers and addicts with the respect due to a pioneer,” and Campbell, who “has created a magazine which ... maintains an inordinately high level of well-written and effective stories” (xxiii).
However, Conklin departed from the vision of Gernsback and Campbell in one crucial respect:
[S]cience fiction, despite its treading on the toes of nuclear physics, has no business claiming the robes of the prophet ... fun, after all, is the primary import of science fiction, which, like the detective story and the fairy tale as well, has one purpose, clear and simple: the purpose of entertaining you. It is first as entertainment that The Best of Science Fiction is offered, with only a slight and faintly uneasy salaam to the writers who have put their imaginations to the practical problem of what nuclear fission might involve in the way of social and political change. (xvi, xviii)
Thus, Conklin, like Gold, attempted to play down the important functions of science fiction proclaimed by Campbell—though he continued to acknowledge such functions as a secondary aspect of the genre.
Conklin went on to edit numerous anthologies that were each generally devoted to a different science fiction topic—robots, space travel, other dimensions, mutants, and the like. Science fiction was a growing field, which generated a need for some kinds of subdivisions; and Conklin’s collections were undoubtedly influential in setting up canons of stories of certain types and in establishing the convention of categorizing science fiction works by subject matter—unlike Miller’s tendency to categorize by different types of audiences.
The first regular series of science fiction anthologies began with The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T.E. Dikty, followed by seven successor volumes; their introductions to the first two volumes have some interesting features. In their Preface to the first volume, Bleiler and Dikty began by claiming that “Many of the greatest figures in world literature have written what might be called science-fiction.... A short list would include Daniel DeFoe, W.H. Hudson, Aldous Huxley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jonathan Swift, and H.G. Wells” (19), following the strategy of Gernsback and Conklin in striving to establish the respectability of the form. And two of their “cogent reasons to demonstrate that science-fiction has value”—“its scientific truth, its educational value”—recall Gernsback: in saying, “there has been a large middle-ground where science-fiction and history have conveniently met, and many apt predictions have resulted. Nor has science-fiction been without repercussions on the life of the individual” (20), they restated Gernsback’s argument for the power of science fiction prophecy, although their examples of its impact—the founding of the Royal Academy in response to Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis and the attempted establishments of actual utopian societies in response to Edward Bellamy—extended beyond the realm of inventions. And, while acknowledging this claim can be “overestimate[d]” or “overrate[d],” they agreed that “Science-fiction, it is true, can offer a palatable mass of facts for easy consumption” (20-21). But their third argument for the genre was more expansive and original: that it can offer “an insight and investigation into a specific aspect of life which no other means can offer: the relation of man to science” (21).
After they emphasized this broad and powerful role, however, the Preface to their second volume (1950) argued more narrowly for a strong connection between science fiction and detective fiction:
In addition to their parallel evolution, science-fiction and the whodunit share a closely related innermost essence. The detective story ... is intellectually oriented. It proposes an intellectual problem which the reader is intended (or not intended) to solve. It is ultimately an exercise for the imagination. Science-fiction is similarly intellectually aimed; often it is just as much a riddle or puzzle tale as the whodunit. And both stress Mystery ... in modern science-fiction, as the reader of this book will notice, the science is almost always imaginative, and surprise endings are common. In science-fiction, stories which are the exegesis of a scientific idea are obviously closer to the whodunit than stories which stress an adventure element.... the science-fiction story—at present and increasingly in the future—is supplanting the detective story. (19-20)
From one perspective, this attitude was a natural outgrowth of Campbell’s emphasis on science fiction as a way to train people to think in a scientific manner. But these observations could be construed as a truncation of the genre, removing the “adventure element” and presenting no arguments for science fiction as a way to anticipate and influence future developments, or to comment on present-day society. Instead, science fiction becomes little more than a stimulating brain-teaser.
Judith Merril, who edited twelve “Year’s Best” anthologies from 1955 to 1967, became the preeminent anthologist of her era, in part because she definitely presented and argued a consistent and provocative position. In her rambling commentaries and eccentric choices of stories from all sorts of writers and publications—not just those associated with science fiction—Merril effectively maintained that there were not after all large differences between science fiction and other forms of literature, thus making another appeal, in a way, for judging science fiction by “ordinary critical standards.” And this, of course, is another effect of a growing genre—the effort to break down barriers so that it can grow some more. To further broaden the field, Merril also started a campaign to replace “science fiction” with the more general—and ameliorative—”SF”; as she explained in 1967:
Science fiction as a descriptive label has long since lost whatever validity it might once have had. By now it means so many things to so many people that ... I prefer not to use it at all, when I am talking about stories. SF (or generically, s-f) allows you to think science fiction if you like, while I think science fable or scientific fantasy or speculative fiction, or (once in a rare while, because there’s little enough of it being written, by any rigorous definition) science fiction. (“Introduction,” ix)
Late in her career as an editor, Merril became an enthusiastic advocate of the New Wave, celebrated in her 1960s book reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and in her 1968 anthology England Swings SF, and the New Wave became the next critical movement in the history of the idea of science fiction, to be discussed shortly. As Merril left the scene in the late 1960s, two other series of “year’s best” anthologies carried on her tradition—one edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, the other by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss, each offering exemplary stories as well as introductory commentaries.
Amidst a growing number of hardcover science fiction anthologies and novels, the 1940s and 1950s also witnessed the first regular appearances of books about science fiction. There were critical anthologies featuring essays on science fiction by well-known writers and editors, including Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947), edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach; Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, edited by Reginald Bretnor (1953); and The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, edited by Basil Davenport (1959), who also wrote the brief critical study Inquiry into Science Fiction (1955). Much later, Bretnor produced two additional anthologies, Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow (1974) and The Craft of Science Fiction (1976).
While Hal Clement had explained the process of writing hard science fiction in a pioneering essay, “Whirligig World,” that appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction in June 1953, L. Sprague de Camp in the same year offered more general guidance in The Science Fiction Handbook (1953), the first book about how to write science fiction, which was revised and republished in 1975. Other books of this sort followed, including the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Writing and Selling Science Fiction in 1976.
Sam Moskowitz, the most diligent researcher in the science fiction community, produced numerous biographical essays on science fiction writers of the past and present, later gathered into two volumes—Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction (1963) and Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (1966)—while a third collection of his essays, Strange Horizons (1976), explored issues like feminism and anti-Semitism in early science fiction. He also published a history of science fiction fandom, The Immortal Storm (1954), focusing on the 1930s, while another enthusiast, Harry Warner, Jr., covered fandom in the 1940s and 1950s in All Our Yesterdays (1969) and A Wealth of Fable (1976). Another noteworthy book was The Universe Makers (1971) by veteran author and editor Donald A. Wollheim, which persuasively epitomized the science fiction monomyth, the predicted future common to most science fiction: a near future of great troubles, followed by successful human expansion throughout the galaxy, contact with alien life, and ultimately an approach to God. In the area of science fiction film studies, the most important figure was Forrest J. Ackerman, whose principal vehicle for promoting his interests in the field was his long-running magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.
A few small publishers merit special mention for their contributions to science fiction criticism. Advent Publishers of Chicago published many critical studies, including the aforementioned collections of Knight’s and Blish’s reviews and histories like Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for ASTOUNDING (1964). Arkham House, supervised by writer and anthologist August Derleth, primarily focused on H.P. Lovecraft, publishing two books on Lovecraft by Derleth and a magazine The Arkham Sampler. In the 1970s and 1980s, Starmont House and Borgo Press would carry on this publishing tradition. There were also published histories of fandom itself, most notably Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm (1954), focusing on the 1930s, and Harry Warner, Jr.’s All Our Yesterdays (1969) and A Wealth of Fable (1976), focusing on the 1940s and 1950s.
As the science fiction movement grew more international, many voices from other countries emerged, though the foreign-language commentaries were rarely translated into English. In addition to the British figures to be discussed, a hasty and incomplete list of these might include Australian John Baxter, author of the pioneering Science Fiction in the Cinema (1970); France’s Jean-Jacques Bridenne and Jacques Sadoul; Russia’s Julius Kagarlitski and Vladimir Gakov; Austria’s Franz Rottensteiner; and Sweden’s Sam J. Lundwall, author of Science Fiction: What It’s All About (1971) and Science Fiction: An Illustrated History (1977).
Finally, one cannot forget the bibliographies: after scattered efforts to create a complete and comprehensive bibliography of science fiction literature in the 1930s, regularly discussed in the “Science Fiction League” column of Wonder Stories, the first major bibliography in book form appeared in 1948, Everett F. Bleiler’s The Checklist of Fantastic Literature, revised and expanded as The Checklist of Science Fiction and Supernatural Fiction in 1978. Bleiler’s lifelong research later engendered two massive compilations: Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990) and Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998). Another significant contribution came from Donald Henry Tuck, whose comprehensive bibliography, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968, appeared in 1974 and 1982. And there were many others, most notably Robert Reginald and William Contento, who would carry on this work in the 1980s and 1990s.
There is no time for detailed discussions of all these books, and it is difficult to generalize about them. They reflected first of all some desire to explain, and even codify, the process of writing science fiction, something attempted in some of the essays in Eshbach’s anthology and in de Camp’s book. There was an ongoing concern for the literary history of science fiction that on the one hand led to massive bibliographical compilations and on the other hand inspired some, anticipating the expansiveness of later academics, to incorporate much of the history of Western literature into the field. For example, in The Science Fiction Handbook (1975), de Camp, under the rubric of “imaginative literature,” created an absurdly grand context for the genre by dragging in scores of ancient and medieval works: Homer’s Odyssey and other “early epics are full of details that modern readers recognize as elements of science fiction or fantasy”; in The Clouds, Aristophanes “invented the mad scientist,” and in The Birds, he “conceived the earth satellite vehicle”; “Dickens introduced the theme of time travel in A Christmas Carol” (7-8, 13). While Moskowitz’s books did include some older figures, however, his focus was on the life and works of twentieth-century writers, and some of his chapters remain the definitive biographies of their subjects. Essays wrestled with the aforementioned questions of boundaries—how to divide up the burgeoning genre, and how, or whether, to divide science fiction from other genres and mainstream literature. There were efforts to explain the purpose of science fiction—often echoing the portentousness of Campbell—tentative explorations of science fiction in other media (film, radio, television), and complaints about the dismissive attitudes of outside critics. Overall, these various contributions are best viewed as continuations of the tradition of fanzine commentaries, now striving for a sense of dignity appropriate to the format of hardcover publication; their ultimate value may have been to extend discussion of the issues raised by science fiction to readers who were not familiar with fandom.
Of course, even as books like these found a wider audience, fandom continued to produce fanzines, and as fandom itself grew larger and more diverse, the fanzines became more numerous and variegated. I happen to be especially familiar with one fanzine from this era, the California-based Rhodomagnetic Digest, because one of its regular contributors was J. Lloyd Eaton, whose science fiction collection later served as the basis of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, now housed at the University of California at Riverside. To indicate what sorts of virtually unknown, but potentially valuable, materials may be found in these fanzines, consider the August 1950 issue of the Rhodomagnetic Digest. In addition to letters from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and August Derleth, the issue features an essay by Norman Siringer, “Literature and Science Fiction,” which displays an unexpected awareness of developments in contemporary literature (interestingly linked to the scientific method) and reads at times like a manifesto for the New Wave of the 1960s. Here are some edited excerpts from this striking piece:
Since the influence of James Joyce upon modern literature has greatly changed concepts of style, it has become increasingly more difficult to set a formula or plan for the successful use of various ingredients within the framework of a writing of given length to give the guarantee of literary merit. Yet experimentation with stylistic or organizational devices—stream of consciousness, expressionism, impressionism, etc.—have made modern literature, like modern art and modern music, more flexible and better adapted to the specific needs or purposes of the writer....
The renaissance of science shattered the remaining icons. The twentieth century man has a scientific mind, which is essentially an imaginative and a doubting mind. He will not accept the attitudes and codes of his father without first subjecting them to analysis. He realizes that society is constantly changing and that it must change if it is to progress. Antiquated laws, theories of conduct, political systems must be discarded once they are no longer useful.
Our literature today is probing, recklessly truthful, freed from restraining taboos....
Modern literature is internationalist.... the modern writer is interested in people of other countries and races and writes of them with a scientific approach. Why are these people downtrodden? How can their economic and cultural standards be improved? Literature of the past would not have permitted a Grapes of Wrath because the reading public was composed of the wealthy who were not concerned with the plight of the masses. Race relations was not a popular subject because everyone was convinced that the Negro was inferior to the White and that the Christians were justified in any economic or political crimes committed against the heathens.
This is the moral quality of modern literature, the heritage open to the writer of science fiction. Science fiction can best flourish in a democracy; under a dictatorship, as under a Victorian society with certain rigid obligations to the status quo, an imaginative medium for speculation about future man is an impossibility without a guarantee of respect for existing moral, religious or economic standards. And this is not the method of a scientist.
Science fiction suffers primarily from its confinement to the pulp magazines. Even the better American pulps are subject today to the same codes and taboos that restricted the writer for the Golden Argosy, Hoffman’s Adventure, All Story, and Blue Book....
Science fiction is becoming increasingly significant as a method of literary expression, and will attract abler writers than it holds today.... (20-22)
Other articles in the Rhodomagnetic Digest, while lighter in tone, also had insights to convey. In the July-August 1951 issue, Barbara Scott’s “The Girls in Their Cosmic Dresses” offered a bemused survey of the women featured in magazine science fiction illustrations:
The conventional, semi-dressed young miss of science fiction illustration has some good points, a couple of which are only too obvious, and some which require elucidation. She shows, for instance, that artists of today have an unbounded confidence in a brighter world tomorrow. Obviously the weather of the future is going to be more temperate, possibly sub-tropical, because that’s the only kind of weather the gals are ever dressed for....
Another thing the artists have confidence in is that medical science will get around to discovering the secret of eternal youth. For no science fiction heroine ever manages to get past a smoothly feminine thirty, and most of them are in a state of suspended teen-age animation. One reason is obvious—how would the customary plump middle aged creature look in one of those panty-bra combinations?
Wonderful, everlasting warm weather, eternal youth—what else does the woman of the future face? Obviously she is beautiful—in fact, nothing else ever seems to exist except a standard level of feminine pulchritude, a pulchritude so all-pervading that even monsters of another world and another species are attracted to her and keep running away with her, being chased withal by tall, tanned young men with blasters and disintegrators. Surely the best of all possible lives—and one that has almost nothing to do with the story—or the future—or facts—or science. (16-18)
Overall, the stereotypical view that science fiction fans functioned solely as a conservative, constraining force on the genre does not seem entirely justified, and further investigation of the fanzines may provide future scholars with other surprises.
In the 1960s, Michael Moorcock in England and Harlan Ellison in America became the two major spokesmen for the New Wave movement. Of the two, Moorcock was perhaps more radical and energetic in his views, expressed in impassioned editorials for the magazine he edited, New Worlds SF; his openness to controversial and unusual stories, and his calls for new directions in what he preferred to call “speculative fiction” or “sf,” undoubtedly had a great influence on science fiction writers. A passage from one editorial entitled “Why So Conservative?” (1966) can serve to represent Moorcock’s views:
At the time of The Space Merchants and The Stars My Destination, sf was the best popular reading available, almost without question. But the literary climate and the social climate have changed. Things are better. Sf is not alone.... Sf is still an ideal medium for social satire, philosophical argument, prophetic warning, and so on—but is now not the only medium. What we choose to call the “mainstream” is doing almost everything that sf was doing ten or twenty years ago—and it is doing it better than sf was doing it then! ... [Sf] must develop its own standards, its own conventions and it must take its subject matter from every possible source. Otherwise it will remain what it was until fairly recently—the fat, intelligent, often sardonic, colourfully-dressed eunuch of literature.... [These stories] are trying to cope with the job of analysing and interpreting various aspects of human existence, and they hope that in the process they succeed in entertaining you. (3, 156)
In a sense, deemphasizing science (here represented only tangentially in the phrase “prophetic warning”) and emphasizing literary values was an old story by the time Moorcock appeared; still, in its fondness for modern writers of “mainstream” fiction, and its call for “subject matter from every possible source,” Moorcock’s manifesto suggests a new and stronger commitment to literary quality and literary experimentation.
While Moorcock’s New Worlds of SF published many groundbreaking works by British and American authors like Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Thomas M. Disch, Norman Spinrad, and Pamela Zoline, he also helped to inspire a new and vigorous tradition of British commentaries on science fiction in the 1970s and beyond, whose representatives included Mike Ashley, John Clute, Colin Greenland, Roz Kaveney, David Langford, David Pringle, and Brian Stableford. Many of these later found a new home in Pringle’s magazine Interzone (the major successor to New Worlds SF) which began publication in 1982.
While less esteemed by some critics—Aldiss spoke of his work as a “fake revolution” (Trillion Year Spree, 1986, 304)—Harlan Ellison ultimately proved the most important figure in the New Wave because with his enormously successful and influential anthologies, Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), and other writings, he made the New Wave into a popular movement. One of his advantages over Moorcock was that Ellison had grown up with, and had been influenced by, the theories of Gernsback and Campbell—even if he himself was not aware of it—and he thus could articulate the principles of the New Wave in a manner that readers with a traditional commitment to the genre and its ideas could appreciate, if not endorse.
Despite his familiarity with earlier traditions, Ellison did declare that he was leading a “revolution” (“Introduction: Thirty-Two Soothsayers,” 1967, 19) and in fact attempted to demolish several aspects of the Gernsback and Campbell paradigms. Like others of his time, he regularly used the term “speculative fiction,” and his nearest approach to a definition of the form included only tangential references to scientific thought:
In any definition of speculative fiction, there is an unspoken corollary: the most effective fiction in the genre is that which touches on reality in as many places as possible while maintaining the mood of speculation.... The reader must be able to draw the lines of extrapolation from his own experience or environment—the world in which he lives today—through the intervening linkages of logic, emerging at the new place to which the writer has taken him. (“A Voice from the Styx,” 1978, 121)
Ellison’s only concern for science, in fact, was that writers should avoid scientific errors by the use of a “dodgem explanation” or “writer’s tricks” (The Other Glass Teat, 1975, 40)—standards that were much lower than Knight’s or Blish’s.
In addition to an effort to further minimize science as an issue in the genre, Ellison, like Moorcock, wanted science fiction to become more of an experimental and “avant-garde” literature—in “The Waves in Rio,” he listed several writers as “the ‘avant-garde’ in speculative fiction” (1969, 11); he sought to eliminate young readers as a characteristic audience of the genre—“I do not write specifically for fourteen-year-old boys or their mommies” (“Introduction,” 1968, 13)—and like others before him, he specifically denied that science fiction was in any way prophetic—“In the mistaken belief that just because I occasionally write fantasy stories extrapolating some bizarre future America I am privy to Delphic insights, the editors of the [Los Angeles] Times have asked me to unleash some wry conceits about what we can expect. Little do they understand that writers are merely paid liars and we know no more than the rest of you” (“Cheap Thrills on the Road to Hell,” 1984, 159). Also, in keeping with his expansive views of the genre, he was willing to expand the history of science fiction to the point where it became a joke:
My own personal seminal influence for the fantasy that is the basis for all great speculative fiction is the Bible.... Speculative fiction in modern times really got born with Walt Disney in his classic animated film Steamboat Willie, in 1928. Sure it did. I mean, a mouse that can operate a paddle-wheeler?
It’s as sensible a starting place as Lucian, after all, because when we get right down to the old nitty-gritty, the beginning of speculative fiction was the first Cro-Magnon who imagined what it was like out there snuffling around in the darkness just beyond the fire. (“Introduction: Thirty-Two Soothsayers,” 1967, 20-21)
Ellison’s efforts to refashion the genre so radically, however, provoked a violent counter-reaction, and he was later driven to a more conciliatory attitude towards traditional science fiction: “no one is suggesting that the roots of science fiction be ignored or forgotten or cast aside. Solid plotting, extrapolation, trends and culture, technology—all of these things are staples that are necessary to keep the genre electric and alive” (“A Time for Daring,” 1978, 112). Finally, in the 1970s, as if worn out by the battle, Ellison abandoned his crusade to reform science fiction and retreated from the field altogether, angrily resigning from the Science Fiction Writers of America and insisting that his works not be published as “science fiction.”
At the same time that the New Wave was having a strong effect on the popular tradition of science fiction criticism, an entirely new tradition moving according to its own rhythm was emerging: academic science fiction criticism. While I have criticized the theories and attitudes that permeate some of these studies, they represented progress in one crucial respect: because these authors were trained literary scholars and researchers, they could avoid the naïve assumptions, poor reasoning, haphazard documentation, and incohesiveness that sometimes marred the work of the amateur scholars. And when these critics happened to address works considered central by the science fiction community, the results were often demonstrably superior.
As one telling example, one might compare Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension (1968) to H. Bruce Franklin’s Robert A. Heinlein: America As Science Fiction (1980). Both books have an identical format: an introductory biographical sketch, followed by brief discussions of Heinlein’s novels and stories in chronological order, and ending with a bibliography of his works. However, Franklin was first of all more thorough than Panshin, listing several Heinlein items that Panshin had missed, and his analyses of individual works were consistently more insightful and rewarding. Consider their discussions of “By His Bootstraps.” Panshin said the story
is convincing evidence that Heinlein had mastered the art of planning his stories. It is an intricate bit of foolery involving a man meeting himself half a dozen times along the path from Time A to Time B. It is an amusing set piece, logical and beautifully worked out.... “By His Bootstraps” is tightly constructed, as intricate as a bit of musical comedy choreography, and arrives at a destination, while “Elsewhere” slops every which way and simply ends. Neither has anything to get your teeth into.... “By His Bootstraps” is a neatly composed, though completely empty, example of the [intensely recomplicated story]. (28, 93)
Panshin’s dismissive account surely derives from his reading of a Heinlein letter to John W. Campbell, Jr., later reprinted in Grumbles from the Grave (1989), in which Heinlein says that the story “is still hack—a neat trick, sure, but no more than a neat trick. Cotton candy” (22). Panshin thus falls victim to one of the most common mistakes made by untrained critics: believing everything that authors say about their works.
There were, however, several good reasons why Heinlein might have wanted to avoid discussing the serious implications of the story with the outspokenly political Campbell; and Franklin, willing to hypothesize that there might be more to the story than Heinlein reported, studied it more carefully and offered this assessment:
[It is] one of his masterpieces. Rigorous in its logic, this tale penetrates deeply into the implications of the myth of the free individual.... On one level, the story is an ingenious exploration of the problem of identity in time, and the associated questions of the relations between determinism and free will. Diktor has created himself out of Bob Wilson, but without conscious choice until after it has already happened.
“By His Bootstraps” is also a dramatic display of the trapped ego, creating a world out of images of itself. It is thus the first fully developed manifestation of the solipsism which will become one of Heinlein’s main themes. This solipsism is the ultimate expression of the bourgeois myth of the free individual, who supposedly is able to lift himself from rags to riches by his own bootstraps.... Diktor is a grandiose enlargement of Robinson Crusoe, with the entire planet his island. In fact, the first man Wilson meets in the future throws himself on his knees and arises as “his Man Friday.” All the people of this world ... are now “docile, friendly children,” “slaves by nature.” What they lack is “the competitive spirit,” “the will-to-power”: “Wilson had a monopoly on that.”
But this “monopoly” is also a state of supreme loneliness, as well as boredom.... Wilson’s sexuality in both worlds is barren. He can only reproduce himself, as he, a self-created being, suggests in his final words, promising himself, his only kind of son, a great future....
On still another level, “By His Bootstraps” displays this world-embracing egoism as the center of political imperialism. When Diktor asks the first Bob Wilson to return briefly to his own time, his purpose is to acquire some tools to be used in colonizing this undeveloped land.... The prime thing he needs is certain books: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Behind the Ballots by political machine boss James Farley, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (55-57)
Franklin finds the story far from “completely empty” and filled with much “to get your teeth into”—not “cotton candy” at all. Clearly, if asked to recommend one critical study of Heinlein to a busy scholar, most would name Franklin’s book instead of Panshin’s.
Still, if representatives of the popular tradition did not always do well in head-to-head competition with the academics, there remained an important place for them in the 1960s and 1970s. For one thing, the academics tended to play favorites, devoting the bulk of their attention to certain selected writers like Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Philip K.Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and Ursula K. Le Guin while leaving vast amounts of the territory of science fiction essentially unclaimed. Thus, those who wished to study science fiction comprehensively, or to examine authors who had never been admitted to the academic canons, still needed to rely on the surveys and bibliographies of the popular tradition. In addition, as some of the academics followed the tendency of their tribe and increasingly emphasized critical theory and arcane jargon, there arose some hostility towards academic criticism in the science fiction community, as academic analyses appeared increasingly distant from the central issues and seminal authors of their tradition as they perceived it.
However, the 1970s also brought new prominence to figures who straddled the boundaries of fandom and academia, maintaining membership in both groups and thus achieving, in themselves at least, a merging of the two traditions. Of course, there had always been people connected to both communities, since both J.O. Bailey, author of the first academic study of science fiction, and R.D. Mullen, co-founder of Science Fiction Studies, had ties to fandom. But the two major histories of science fiction produced in the 1970s garnered more attention: Brian W. Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973) and James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds: The History of Science Fiction (1975). Both authors were professional writers with strong ties to the science fiction community: Gunn had a Ph.D. in English and was a tenured professor at the University of Kansas; and Aldiss, while lacking formal literary training, had educated himself to the point where he was comfortable as a speaker at academic conferences and book reviewer for the Oxford Mail. Aldiss’s book, emphasizing major authors and often denigrating the American tradition, seemed more academic in spirit, whereas Gunn’s book, endeavoring to put in a good word for all authors and emphasizing the American tradition, seemed more popular in spirit; yet neither history of science fiction seemed either purely popular or purely academic, and both were perhaps stronger for that reason, suggesting that both traditions had much to gain from cooperation and interaction. They further indicated that, as the 1980s approached, it was going to become more and more difficult to keep the popular and academic traditions separate, since there were other increasingly prominent commentators, like John Clute, Gary K. Wolfe, and Susan Wood, who had feet firmly planted in both camps.
While I will leave it to Donald M. Hassler to discuss and praise the contributions of academic science fiction criticism, the virtues of the popular tradition are clear: an unwavering belief in the unique power and importance of science fiction; a catholic enthusiasm for its various manifestations; and a commitment to examine and discuss virtually every work that emerged under its aegis. In contrast, academic critics may regard science fiction as no more or less valuable than other forms of literature; may like some science fiction and intensely dislike the rest of it; and may be highly selective in their examinations of works in the genre. To many, these attitudes will seem only commonsensical in contrast to the naïve belief, bumptious enthusiasm, and obsessive commitment of the popular tradition. Yet love and devotion, for people or for forms of literature, can yield uniquely valuable results, and I believe that the commentaries produced by the loving and devoted members of the science fiction community, considered collectively, are every bit as interesting and stimulating as those produced by members of the academic community. And those who ignore the popular tradition will be forever hampered in their efforts to understand the genre of science fiction.
1. See my “Evolution of Modern Science Fiction” (1996). I wish to thank Everett F. Bleiler for reviewing a draft of this essay.
2. Since I have discussed at length Gernsback’s theories—and those of John W. Campbell, Jr.—elsewhere, most extensively in The Mechanics of Wonder (1998), the discussions of Gernsback and Campbell here will be relatively brief, to focus more attention on other figures who have been elsewhere dealt with either hastily or not at all.
3. Ashley’s second statement actually is that “Merwin challenged....” but the context of the passages makes it clear that he is referring to Mines. No doubt because of the similarity of their names and occupations, Merwin and Mines are often confused: in “Beauty, Stupidity, Injustice, and Science Fiction,” for example, Knight claims that Merwin published The Lovers, when it actually appeared after he had stopped editing Startling Stories.
4. As discussed in my Cosmic Engineers (1996).
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