Thursday, January 22, 2009


Sorry for not posting this yesterday as promised. In the morning I got bogged down in a sidebar riff on Doc Savage and didn't get it finished, and in the evening I went to look up something to support a point and instead spent the rest of the evening absorbed in a J. G. Ballard novella.

This happens to me. I collect — no, collect isn't the right word. Collectors buy old, out-of-print books based on their hypothetical value and then put them in plastic bags, never to be cracked open or touched again by human hands until it's time to sell them. I accumulate old anthologies, particularly those edited by Groff Conklin or Damon Knight. And then, when time permits, I read the stories contained therein. Sometimes I even re-read them.

So I happen to know that while it makes a good creation myth, the idea that science fiction was invented by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 and perfected by John W. Campbell Jr. in the late 1930s and 1940s is not entirely true. Stories of fantastic adventures, strange voyages, and marvelous inventions are as old as story-telling itself. People have been telling tales like these ever since our hairy distant ancestors sat huddled together around the neolithic campfire, making noise all night to keep the bears and tigers away and telling the story of Og, who journeyed over the mountains to the next valley, where he met a strange tribe who had amazing flint axes that never needed knapping. Just as the oldest known written joke is a fart joke (I am not making this up), I firmly believe that if the oldest known written story is ever found, it will turn out to be one about a heroic man who flies to the Moon, meets a beautiful maiden there who needs to be rescued in some way, and after he does so, in gratitude she gives him some sort of wondrous prize.

The second oldest story will turn out to be the same thing, but with the wondrous prize turning out to be sex with the beautiful Moon maiden. The third oldest will be the same thing again, but with the sex scene interrupted by a fart joke.

Reviewing the entire history of fantastic literature is not necessary, though: a quick skim over the past two centuries will suffice. As Damon Knight puts it in his introduction to One Hundred Years of Science Fiction (Simon and Schuster, 1968), "there was no major nineteenth-century American writer of fiction, and indeed few in the second rank, who did not write some science fiction, or at least one utopian romance," a point which Knight then goes on to prove by reprinting recognizably science fiction stories written by Rudyard Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, and others. So why the amazing, nay, astounding persistence of the Gernsback/Campbell creation myth?

When I started reading contemporary science fiction in the late 1960s, and later began studying it in college in the early 1970s, the battle cry of the then-contemporary New Wave science fiction writers was that SF needed to "get out of the ghetto" and muscle its way into the literary mainstream. But the more I studied the history of SF, the more I realized that, while yes, SF is a literary ghetto, it's the ghetto Gernsback platted out and Campbell walled in. The reason why so much 19th century SF seems nonexistent now is because it was published in the same mainstream periodicals as all other contemporary fiction of the time, and thus escaped the attention of later SF-oriented anthologists. Beginning in the 1920s, the readers and writers of science fiction consciously chose to wall themselves in and shut out the outside literary world. Your story has rocketships, robots, rayguns, and horrible drooling alien monsters? Cool, you're in. It has character development? We don't need no steenkin' character development!

Aw, they just don't write 'em like The Skylark of Space anymore. (Thank God!)

This attitude persists even into contemporary times. The science fiction ghetto is a place where people unhappy with their actual lives in contemporary reality can hide out and imagine themselves to be someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else, and live for days at a time in a judgment-free, consequence-free alternate reality — as a few days spent at any major science fiction fan convention will prove. The science fiction community squanders an enormous amount of time and energy arguing over what is or is not "real" science fiction; who is or isn't in the club. This is one of the reasons why I dropped out of SFWA. I had the displeasure of being on the Board of Directors and chairing the Membership Committee through two incredibly stupid, bitter, and protracted wrangles, one over exactly which professional publication credits counted as science fiction publication credits for the purposes of determining membership status, and the other over whether to change the organization's name and bylaws to include fantasy writers. (There went two years of my life I'll never get back again.) But just why is the science fiction community so damned and determined to shore up and maintain the walls of its ghetto?

In chasing down this meme, I keep coming back to Gernsback, Campbell, and most of all to the Futurians; a very small group of New York science fiction fans — and later writers, editors, and highly influential literary agents — who idolized Gernsback in the 1920s and went on to write for Campbell in the 1930s and 1940s. The Futurians were largely young, idealistic, atheistic, sexually liberated, socialists when not outright communists, incestuous both literarily and sometimes physically, and ferocious New York chauvinists. For example, Futurian writer James Blish's magnum opus was Cities in Flight, which was based on the idea that someday we would perfect anti-gravity, after which entire domed cities such as, say, Manhattan would take to the stars.

Suburbs in Flight or maybe Gated Communities in White Flight would perhaps be a more likely outcome of such a technological leap, but that idea would never occur to a New Yorker.

To really appreciate the Futurians and their impact, consider the words of the late Donald Wollheim, writer, editor, and founder of DAW Books, who stated that the writers and followers of science fiction "should actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state as the only genuine justification for their activities and existence". In this one statement, Wollheim makes a direct connection from the 19th century "utopian romances" Knight cited earlier to the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of modern science fiction.

I have read more than my fair share of 19th century utopian romances. Most are pure simple-minded dreck.
"As you know, Robert, the cornerstone of our modern world of perfect peace and universal prosperity is the Treaty of London, which was written when all the world's kings and presidents gathered together in the Crystal Palace and passed a law abolishing war forever."
Some transcend mere infantile dreckdom, though, and reach the heights of pernicious, and yet, in their day, highly influential agit-prop.
"Thereafter, with the subsequent outlawing of money, private property, greed, illness, marriage, unlicensed childbirth, and organized religion, Man was at last set on the path to the shining city on the hill; the glorious future we all enjoy today!"

"My word!" Robert ejaculated, "that does sound frightfully exciting! So where is this shining city on the hill? Beyond that foul-smelling clutter of tumble-down pig-pens I espy yonder?"

The Traveler from Utopolis smiled wanly. "Actually, that is the city. We're not quite done with the latest Five Year Plan yet."
Sorry. I couldn't resist.

To be continued...