Science Fiction Studies

#48 = Volume 16, Part 2 = July 1989


Survey of the Best SF in the USSR

Vladimir Borisov of the All-Union Council of Fan Clubs has sent us the results of a survey of what readers in the USSR consider these days to be the best SF among the books and short stories currently in print there. (The covering note says "best SF published in 1987"; but certainly some of the "winning" titles—e.g., Lem's— have been available in Soviet-produced editions for a much longer period of time than that.)                

Respondents (an unspecified number) were asked to rate the possibilities on a scale of O to 10 in three categories: Soviet novels, Soviet short stories, and translations of foreign works. The top three books in the first class, with ratings ranging from 8.9 to 8.4, were The Ugly Swans by the Strugatsky brothers, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, and Tale of the Troika (also by the Strugatskys). "The Industrial Story" by a young SF writer named B. Shtern came in first among short stories and was the only fiction in this category to rate more than a seven on the scale. Among translations, the top four (the only ones with ratings of seven or higher) were: S. Lem's Futurological Congress (8.7), John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (7.9), Robert Scheckley's Meeting of the Minds (7.2), and Stephen King's Text Processor (7.0).—RMP


More on Black Writers of SF

Having just picked up the March 1988 issue of SFS, I would like to comment on the exchange between Fred Lerner and Kathleen Spencer concerning the mystery of "missing" Black SF writers.                

Ms Spencer misses Lerner's clearly expressed point. Her argument—that "it is important to remember that the writers of SF have, for most of their history, formed a very small and quite intimate community. Most of them knew everybody else who worked in the field with any persistence and/or success—by reputation if not personally"—is simply not true.                

When SF was concentrated in the magazines, there was a community of many or most of those writing regularly for them, with groups in a large number of cities who knew each other, and many more both in these places and elsewhere who had some contact with some other writers. This amorphous population had much in common and collectively made SF what it was.                

Since the decline of the magazines, the field has become highly diffuse; and while there still exists an identifiable community based on the original one, it is no longer so dominant. But even in the 1930s and '40s these relatively important writers were not the whole field or more than a minority among a much larger group of those whose names sometimes appeared in the magazines.                

For those fond of figures, 1326 writers contributed to the SF magazines between 1926 and 1950 (allowing for known pseudonyms), and 737 of them wrote only one story each. If we also consider stories known to have been accepted (some even announced as forthcoming) but never published, by names otherwise unknown, a further 49 can be added to both groups. I have not been able to find any facts about how many of these people—including, I would think, all the "one-timers"— were Black. Indeed, there is no way of knowing whether any of them were.                

We have, then, an open question: Where are the "unknown" Black writers? And it's not only a question about SF; it applies to popular fiction in general and certainly to the pulp field. Why can't we find a minority, even a tiny minority, writing for Argosy, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Breezy Stories, Mystery Adventure, and so on? In spite of Sam Moskowitz's educated guess, it is even hard to find Black readers. -- Graham Stone, Sydney, Australia                                                                                                                                                                                    
 I am grateful to Mr Stone for having, in his final paragraph, articulated so clearly the question which has lain hidden behind both my original observation (in passing) that Octavia Butler was one of three Black SF writers that we know of, and my somewhat testy response to Mr Lerner's letter (in the March 1988 SFS). "Where are the Blacks?" is indeed the crucial question.               

Whether there are only these three contemporary Black SF writers (Butler, Barnes, and Delany), or a few others hidden in the pulps, their numbers, I think we can all agree, are strikingly low (which is, in fact, the only point I was trying to make with my original comment)—so low as to need explanation.                

Since SF has proved such a powerfully liberating genre for women, allowing writers to create and readers to experience alternatives to patriarchy, at least in imagination, I would have expected it to prove equally liberating for Blacks. Samuel Delany, for one, says that for him the genre has indeed been liberating. He talks somewhere about his experience as a teenager reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, an otherwise politically repellent book which reveals, parenthetically and very late in the novel, the fact that the first-person narrator is Filipino—that is, dark skinned, not (as Delany had automatically assumed) Caucasian, like the heroes of every other book he'd ever read. This detail signalled to him that, in the world of the novel, race was no longer a significant fact, that the race "problem" had been solved. It was, he says, a revelation—his first inkling that such a profound change could come about.                

But why, then, have so few other Black writers that we know of had the same experience and been moved to write SF? Is it just that this is a genre which appeals to a small, if devoted, audience—not to mention one that pays comparatively poorly—so that a few of the published writers of any race engage in it? Or perhaps we should attribute the low numbers of Black SF writers to discrimination: either their submissions were not accepted because of their race or their themes, or the writers chose to conceal their race, as some women writers concealed their gender.

Or perhaps the apparently parallel experiences of Blacks and women as oppressed groups are not as parallel as they seem: the reversals of hierarchy which prove so powerful an imaginative tool for women may not function the same way for Blacks. It is even possible that, especially earlier in the century, unequal access to education and to jobs which would provide a living while allowing sufficient time and energy left over to write could silence many a Black writer who might otherwise have demonstrated a gift for SF.                

But these are only speculations, plausible conjectures rather than knowledge. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Stone: it is vital that we try to find the answers to the question he has raised, not just for SF but for all the varieties of popular fiction. Where are the Black writers? And, for that matter, the Black readers? Did the pulp genres, so popular with the general reading audience, have nothing to say to Blacks, or were they somehow silenced? I think the answers to these questions are important to us all. -- Kathleen L. Spencer, Millsaps College

 Library News

Over the past 19 years Toronto's "Spaced Out Library" has served as a focal point for the SF community in and around Toronto. Opened in 1970, on the basis of Judith Merril's donation of some 5000 items, it is part of the Toronto Public Library system. As a non-circulating library, with more than 22,000 books and 16,000 periodical issues, it is an important research tool; and it also has strong links with the Canadian SF community. Most importantly—and unlike many research collections—it is open to the public on a walk-in basis six days of the week. Located on the edge of the University of Toronto campus, it is used by high school and university students. It also sponsors various community programs, including readings and receptions for visiting and local writers, a program for high school students, writers' workshops, and a meeting space for local SF groups. The library is also a deposit collection for the internationally-known World SF organization.               

This—one of the largest public collections in North America, a rare instance of a combination of community involvement and interest with what is basically a research collection—all seems threatened: not by lack of interest or hostility, but by the very specific demands of a research collection. At present it is housed with the equally well-known Osborne Collection of rare children's books; and for nine years the Toronto Library Board has promised the two a larger building with a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for the conservation of these increasingly valuable and perishable collections. But as land prices soar in Toronto, the City is apparently unable to find the necessary money. The new building still does not even have a site, although these prestigious Special Collections have outgrown their present rooms—and there is even talk of putting major parts of them in storage.                

All this is extremely worrying for SF fans, readers, and researchers for whom the library is a central part of their lives.                

The "Friends of the Spaced Out Library" is trying to inform fans and writers in Canada and the US of this situation.

I would urge you to write a letter articulating your concerns to: Ms Joanne Doucette, Chair/Toronto Public Library Board/281 Front St. E./Toronto, Ontario/ M5A 4L2. Such a letter might refer to the importance of the Spaced Out Library and express the strong wish that a new building, large enough for the entire collection, be provided as soon as possible, with a minimal interruption in services. Please also send me a copy of your remarks in an envelope marked "Friends of the Spaced Out Library" and addressed to: 73 Delaware Ave./Toronto, Ontario/M6H 2S9. Peter Fitting, University of Toronto

The Eaton Collection, which has one of the best holdings anywhere of F&SF books, recently purchased the Terry Carr fanzine collection (of more than 14,000 assorted publications). It has also acquired from a certain George Eldridge a holding of SF magazines, including a near-complete run of early Gernsback productions and complete files of Astounding and Analog. The Eaton has also become a depository for manuscripts of works by Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Robert Forward. Inquiries about these and related matters can be sent to: Dr George Slusser/University Library/PO Box 5900/University of California/Riverside, CA 92517.—RMP


Contributions Wanted

Carl Malmgren is looking for papers for an anthology of essays he is putting together on science fantasy. What he specifically wants are studies of the history and theory of the (sub)genre; explorations of its relation to other kinds of estranged fiction; and examinations of individual authors and texts. Inquiries, proposals, or completed scripts should be directed to him—the sooner, the better—care of: English Dept./University of New Orleans/New Orleans, LA 70148.

The Open University is trying to establish a Raymond Williams Memorial Trust to fund an annual lecture in memory of that late and lamented critic (and SFS Board Member). Lecturers "would discuss and develop the continuing importance of Raymond's work and its bearing upon future cultural and political practices."                

It is calculated that a capital sum of £10,000 will be needed to fund the annual cost of such a lecture. Those willing to contribute (whatever the amount) should make their cheque payable to the Raymond Williams Memorial Trust and send it to: Graham Martin/Faculty of Arts/The Open University/Milton Keynes MK7 6AA/England.

Linda Thompson would like information pertinent to her study of "The Image of Nursing in SF." She would be grateful for communications from anyone who knows of titles (preferably along with other necessary bibliographic details) of SF novels and short stories which have nurses as characters or nursing as a theme. Her address is: 2423 Agnew St./Montgomery, AL 36106.

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