Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part Two)

There is a curious synchronicity at work here. In 1890 the United States Census Bureau declared the American frontier officially closed, to the extent that there was no longer a discernible line of separation between settled and unsettled areas within the continental United States. In 1896 the frontier of the imagination might be considered to have officially opened, with the launch of the first pulp fiction magazine, Argosy. This magazine, and the many imitators that soon followed it, was in a direct line of descent from the dime novels and "penny-dreadfuls" that made legends of Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid. Every month it served up generous helpings of pure, unadulterated escapist adventure fantasy to a mostly young, mostly male, and increasingly urbanized audience.

While some of the early pulps such as The Shadow and Doc Savage were simply dime novels issued in serialized format, others gave their readers a glorious hodge-podge of war, sports, jungle, railroad, horror, mystery, crime, pirate, and "scientific romance" stories, intermixed with the occasional factual article—and yes, they also ran plenty of Westerns. Genre lines were crossed and recrossed with gleeful abandon until they were mincemeat for the very simple reason that they didn't exist yet; Edgar Rice Burroughs' martians might be ten feet tall, green, oviparous, and equipped with four arms each, and their horses might have eight legs, but in terms of behavior they were indistinguishable from any band of H. Rider Haggard's nomadic savages. Above all, the early pulps excelled in delivering what a later generation might call "that Indiana Jones stuff": lost cities, uncharted islands, vanished civilizations, and secret cults plotting terrible things from which only broad-chested heroes with flashing swords or blazing guns could rescue the beautiful women.

In 1909, publisher, editor, and sometimes writer Hugo Gernsback launched Modern Electrics magazine, and to fill space he occasionally ran reprints of old Verne, Wells, or Edgar Allan Poe stories. Impressed by the positive response these stories drew from readers, in 1926 Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, the world's first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction—or as Gernsback dubbed it, "scientifiction." [His original term, oddly enough, did not catch on with the general public, and so he later changed it to "science fiction." That name stuck.]

The success—and bankruptcy, and reborn success—of Amazing Stories quickly led to a host of imitators: Planet Stories, Marvel Tales, Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, Startling Stories, Astounding Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories...

All these magazines tilled the same fields, bought work from the same writers, and played by the same rules as the older pulp fiction titles. While the genre of science fiction quickly became known as "that Buck Rogers stuff," for the very good reason that Captain Anthony "Buck" Rogers made his first appearance anywhere in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, most science fiction stories continued to abound in that Indiana Jones stuff: lost treasures, hidden civilizations, mysterious plateaus where dinosaurs still roamed, and beautiful women who needed to be rescued. Battles between spaceships were still as likely to be settled by boarding the enemy's ship and engaging in a sword-fight as by exchanging salvos of electro-cannon fire; the treacherous leader of the evil aliens might be a blue-skinned four-eyed reptiloid from Saturn but he still had an inexplicable lust for blonde Earth women; and the hero of a Murray Leinster tale might use an "interdimensional catapult" to journey to a new world, but once he got there the rest of the story could very well be a straight-ahead jungle adventure of the sort in which Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan would feel perfectly at home.

And yes, every now and then, some magazines ran science fiction stories that looked an awful lot like Westerns.

All of this changed in 1938, when John W. Campbell, Jr., took over as editor of Astounding Stories. An accomplished and widely published author in his own right, Campbell insisted that science fiction readers were more intelligent than the readers of other forms of pulp fiction, therefore science fiction writers had to be more intelligent than the writers of other forms of fiction, and therefore the old-school pulp writers were no longer welcome at Astounding. Instead, Campbell concentrated his editorial energies on finding and developing new writers, who wrote stories in which the science was both credible and integral to the story, and in so doing he pretty much single-handedly defined what we now think of as modern science fiction.

Campbell reigned as the editor of Astounding (later renamed Analog) from 1938 to 1971, and the roll call of writers he discovered and famous stories he published during those years reads like the combined Who's Who and Hall of Fame of science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon—the list goes on and on. And while Campbell was not the first to publish Isaac Asimov—Amazing gets that honor, for a story Campbell rejected—he did buy the majority of Asimov's early work, including the series of short stories that were later collected and reissued as Asimov's legendary novels, Foundation and I, Robot.

Rather less well-remembered now are the names of the 1930s pulp writers whose careers effectively ended because Campbell refused to buy any more fiction from them, as well as the names of the "slick" magazine writers whose stories he rejected on the grounds that only authors who wrote science fiction exclusively were qualified to write science fiction. [Tell that to Michael Crichton or Margaret Atwood.] What we do know is that Campbell was famous for writing excoriating rejection letters, and he saved his worst verbal eviscerations for those writers he thought were trying to pass off conventional pulp stories as science fiction—especially Westerns.

[Strangely enough, while we have plenty of examples of the former, history does not record one single example of Campbell rejecting an Arthur C. Clarke story because it was "just another locked-room mystery set in space" or of his rejecting an Isaac Asimov robot story because it was "just another rewrite of 'The Golem of Prague'."]

While science fiction and mystery magazines prospered in the 1940s, the rest of the pulp adventure field fell on hard times. Not only did wartime paper shortages and economic dislocations put many titles out of business, but by the end of the decade, Terra was running terribly short of incognita. There were no longer any uncharted islands in the Pacific Ocean; farewell, Skull Island and the sons of Kong. The air routes through the Himalayas were thoroughly mapped; goodbye, Shangri-La and Lost Horizon. There were no noble savages or ancient civilizations waiting to be discovered in the jungles of the Congo, no more mysterious cities hidden high in the mountains of South America, and getting to Mars was beginning to look like it would take considerably more effort than cobbling together a spaceship in the backyard from a discarded atomic motor and some government surplus parts. Not only that, but once you got there, the prospects for finding any beautiful half-naked Martian women who needed to be rescued began to seem pretty darn slim.

With terra incognita gone, then, and astra incognita looking increasingly unreachable, many science fiction writers began to turn to psyche incognita. In 1950 Horace (H.L.) Gold launched the last of the Golden Age pulps, Galaxy Science Fiction, with the deliberate intention of de-emphasizing technology and concentrating on serious sociological and psychological stories. Unfortunately Gold also suffered from severe agoraphobia, and many writers quickly realized that they could sell to Galaxy by writing fiction that catered to Gold's illness, hence the large number of "domed city," "underground city," and "the whole world is just one big city" stories that dominated printed science fiction well into the 1970s. For our purposes, though, this vast body of phobic fiction is merely an unfortunate side-effect of Gold's tenure as editor. His real, lasting, and profoundly irritating contribution came in the form of these paragraphs:
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

"Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."
That's right. While it was Hugo Gernsback who named it science fiction declared it to be a genre apart, and John W. Campbell who rejected the idea of there being any possible crossover between science fiction and other forms of fiction, it was H. L. Gold who gave that rejection its enduring name. Bat Durston first appeared in the pages of Galaxy—but not in an actual story. "Bat Durston, Space Marshal," was a full-page advertisement, which appeared under the headline, "YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!" and ran repeatedly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The rest of the ad copy went on to ridicule the idea of "a Western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet" and extol the virtues of Galaxy as being a magazine that published only stories "by people who know and love science fiction"—by which Gold meant authors who would never be caught dead crossing genre lines. Ergo, to answer the question we asked at the beginning of this essay: Why?

Because for more than fifty years now, the members of science fiction's critical/literary/academic/pretentious circles have adhered to Campbell's conceit that science fiction is somehow innately superior to all other forms of fiction, by repeatedly and ritualistically beating the stuffings out of H. L. Gold's straw man.

To be concluded...