- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
What makes science fiction the literature of choice for so many? Arthur C. Clarke, the novelist and scientist, gave a good answer once, when asked why he chose to write in this genre: “Because,” he said, “no other literature is concerned with reality.”
Clarke didn’t say what sort of reality he had in mind, but there are two that suggest themselves. One of those significant realities of our time is science and technology. Those are the things that have made this century move so fast, in ways that earlier generations could hardly even imagine, and science fiction has played some part in accelerating their progress. In the 1930s there was no television, radio showed little interest in science, even the daily newspapers covered it scantily and not very well; but science-fiction magazines were exploring in every pulpwood issue the latest concepts from genetics and nuclear physics to cosmology. I think it is fair to say that a majority of the world’s leading scientists today were first turned on to their subjects by reading science-fiction stories.
The other reason for a fascination with science fiction is that the central fact of contemporary life is rapid, everaccelerating change, change that alters the rules of all our lives all the time. And science fiction is, in essence, the literature of change. I should know. I was present just shortly after the creation.
There are two things I remember clearly about the winter of 1930–31. The first is snow, heaped high in the streets, with men in dress shoes and three-piece suits shoveling it higher and glad for the work. The other is a magazine called Science Wonder Stories.
A leading science-fiction writer traces the course of sci-fi in America from its beginnings when a few kids met in a drugstore to its present state as a powerful, worldwide literary movement
I don’t know where that magazine came from. Some chance visitor to our home must have left it, but when I found it I was thrilled by the picture on the cover. It was a huge, scaly, green monster from another planet, busily wrecking an American city. I’d never seen anything like it before, and when I began to read the stories I was hooked forever. Martians! Time machines! Cities of the future where everyone had a job and plenty to eat and flew swallow-winged aircraft and saw broadcasts on television and invented miraculous devices of every conceivable sort!
I think it was the contrast between the world in that science-fiction magazine (and the others I hastily made it my business to find in the secondhand stores on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn) and the grimmer, grimier world outside my windows that made those stories so irresistible. It was the time of the Great Depression.
I was only eleven years old, and although my family had its own troubles in those terrible years, I was spared the worst of the shocks. All the same, there was a night-and-day difference between the real world of 1931 and that bright, blossoming magazine fantasy.
Science fiction is a part of everyone’s life now, not least because so much of it isn’t fiction any longer. But in the early 1930s there weren’t any science-fiction books to speak of being published in the United States—one or two a year, maybe, and most of them either Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars novels—written when he was taking a break from Tarzan—or juveniles of the kind written by Carl Claudy. In England there were a few more, by people like S. Fowler Wright and W. Olaf Stapledon (for some years I wondered if all Englishmen parted their names in the middle). There wasn’t even any science fiction on radio until the children’s show “Buck Rogers” appeared later in the decade. Once in a great while there was a film—Just Imagine from Hollywood, imports like Transatlantic Tunnel and FP1 Doesn‘t Answer and, later on, the wonderful Things to Come. Few of the movies were successful at the box office, and so, of course, there were even fewer of them thereafter.
In America science fiction came in three packages, which were named Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories Super-science, and Wonder Stories. They were pulp magazines, limping along on marginal circulations, ignored by every literary critic—and by almost everyone else in America too. Collectively the three magazines published something under two million words of science fiction a year and paid their writers very little. Half a cent a word was normal, often paid only on publication, sometimes not even then. Astonishingly, there was no scarcity of volunteers to write the stories. It certainly was not for the money; even a successful magazine science-fiction writer could barely count on as much as ten dollars a week.
What made the professional imaginers write science fiction was simply love. Nor were their readers much different. The writers were mostly in their early twenties and mostly male. The readers included a great many of that period’s crop of young or about-to-be scientists; the magazines sold best near college campuses. But overwhelmingly the typical reader was a boy of about fifteen; some of the readers were even under ten.
The central fact about the science-fiction community, writers and readers alike, was that it was a family. The members shared interests and outlooks that the rest of the world disdained. They thought in terms of science and the future, and when they weren’t reading or writing about those things, what they wanted most was to talk about them. In so doing, they gave birth to that unique cultural phenomenon, science-fiction “fandom.”
It is very difficult to explain science-fiction fandom to anyone who has never experienced it. The closest analogy, perhaps, might be to the “cellar Christians” of pagan Rome, small, furtive groups of believers, meeting in secret, shunned or even attacked by outsiders or, as fans came to call them, the “mundanes.”
The entry into fandom was greatly aided by living in a large city in that neolithic stage of the science-fiction society. With a million or more human beings within easy commuting range, it wasn’t hard to find a few who shared almost any oddball interest. It was harder for those who lived in small towns or no towns at all, like Jack Williamson in sparsely populated New Mexico. He discovered science fiction earlier, by sending away for a free sample of one of the magazines. He was an instant convert. “My imagination was overwhelmed,” he says. “I raised two dollars for a subscription, devoured the stories—such adventures into the unknown as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool’—and started writing my own. My world had suddenly expanded. It had been pretty much just the farm and ranch, the country school, and the county seat thirty miles away. Suddenly it included the whole universe of science and the imagination, future as well as present. In a sense, I became a citizen of the cosmos.”
I don’t know where that magazine came from, but when I read it I was hooked forever.
In my part of the world—New York City—that science-fiction cosmos was more densely inhabited. My own first experience with organized fandom came when one of the magazines, Wonder Stories, launched a correspondence club called the Science Fiction League (or SFL—fans love initials) in an effort to boost its failing circulation. I joined at once, of course, hoping to find correspondents to exchange letters with; I got more than I had dreamed of when the SFL chartered local chapters. The first of them was in Brooklyn, New York, and I begged my parents’ permission to stay out late enough one night to attend its first meeting.
It was held in the cellar of a semidetached house in one of Brooklyn’s bedroom communities, the home of a young man named George Gordon Clark, who had a signal distinction. Not only was Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League officially numbered Chapter No. 1 of the SFL, but Clark’s postage stamp had beaten out all the others who sent in their membership applications, so that he became Member No. 1. As Member No. 490 I could only envy him. Six or eight fans showed up for that meeting; Clark, in his early twenties, was the oldest of us, and I was close to the youngest. We admired Clark’s collection. We talked about drawing up a constitution and by-laws for the chapter (next to Amazing Stories and the other magazines, our favorite reading was Robert’s Rules of Order). And then we retired to a nearby soda fountain for ice-cream sodas. It wasn’t the meetings themselves that drew us together. It was the “meetings after the meetings”—ritual affairs, never neglected—when we would sit for an hour or two and talk.
All over the country—and in most of the English-speaking world, though in smaller numbers— people just like us were doing just what we were doing. Fan clubs sprang up in England, Canada, and Australia as well as most of the larger cities in the United States. Fans spent their time corresponding with other fans and writing for and publishing their own fan magazines (later renamed fanzines). Few fans had any spare money, so the fan magazines were not elaborate. They were generally mimeographed, sometimes hectographed (a process that involved laying single sheets of paper down on a sticky jelly master, always producing purple stains on the fingers from the ink). It was not uncommon for the circulation of a fan magazine to be fifteen or twenty, or sometimes only in single digits. They published amateur stories, reviews of the current magazines, gossip about club activities, and essays on anything the editors thought interesting—or could persuade anyone to write for them.
None of them ever paid for their contributions, of course. Yet even in the fan magazines there were the beginnings of considerable wealth, for two fans in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, published a cartoon magazine about an amazing man of steel. The idea wasn’t entirely their own—they confessed to being inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel about a superstrong boy, Gladiator—but commercial interests saw what they had done, bought the rights from them for a very small number of dollars, and launched their character as a comic strip. Of course, since then that character has appeared— endlessly—in films and television and every other medium known to man, because his name was Superman.
As the young teenagers of the 1930s began to mature, fans even began to live with other fans, in communes with names like The Ivory Tower in Brooklyn and Slan Shack in the Midwest, where three or four working fans clubbed together to take an apartment that all their fan friends used as a convenient meeting place. As fans matured a little more, and as the first female fans began to show themselves in the previously monastically male fannish world, fans married fans and raised their children to be fans; there are third- and even fourth-generation fans beginning to show up these days at the “cons”—a short term for science-fiction conventions or conferences. Once science-fiction clubs existed, the science-fiction con was a natural consequence.
As it happens, I was present at the very first con of all. It was in 1936. Six or seven of us New York City fans got on a Pennsylvania Railroad train and went all the way down to Philadelphia. There we were greeted by six or seven Philadelphia fans and constituted ourselves the first-ever science-fiction convention.
We had a meeting. What we did at the meeting is lost to posterity because the secretary mislaid the minutes. (I was the secretary.) The important part was the usual meeting after the meeting, where we sat around with our ice-cream sodas until it was time to catch the return train to New York. The next con was only a few months later—in England—when some fans in Birmingham, hearing of what we had done, decided to repeat the event on British soil, and the deluge began.
By 1939 it was clearly time for something grander. New York was not just a one-fan-club city anymore; there were several rival groups, but they got together long enough to make a plan. There was to be a world’s fair in New York that year. Many tourists would be coming, and some of them no doubt would be fellow fans. So why not organize the first-ever World Science Fiction Convention for that place at that time?
And so they did, and every year since then (except for the plague years of World War II, when travel was too difficult) a World Science Fiction Convention has occurred in some city or another. The 1990 event will be in The Hague in the Netherlands. Some of the world conventions have drawn as many as nine thousand people in these latter days, and the program goes on for five days.
Science fiction first happened long before anyone thought there was such a genre.
When I first began reading science fiction there were many big-name writers, most now completely, and often deservedly, forgotten. But the biggest of all is not forgotten, for that was H. G. Wells, the father of us all.
Wells didn’t originate science fiction. That happened long before anyone thought there was such a particular genre of literature—at least as far back as Lucian of Samosata (some would even call the Book of Revelation a kind of science-fiction story)—and there were any number of sort-of science-fiction stories over the centuries; Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, and Cyrano de Bergerac are only a few of the more famous experimenters in the field. Jules Verne has a considerable claim to being the pioneer. (In fact, on the contents page of the first American science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, the publisher, Hugo Gernsback, printed a drawing of Verne’s tomb in Amiens as a tribute.) But Wells wrote consequential science fiction, the kind of story that did not turn out to be just a dream at the end but changed the world itself. While Gernsback was trying to find writers for the early issues of his new kind of magazine, he filled out its pages by reprinting all of Wells’s short stories in the field. He reprinted many other high-quality stories too, for the other thing about reprints was that they were cheaper than even the low rates the editors paid for originals.
The foremost American science-fiction writers of the first generation were Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Cummings. Burroughs’s first book was A Princess of Mars (1917), the story of an Earthman named John Carter who is magically transported to Mars. Once there, he finds himself in a semifeudal, utterly glamorous world where beautiful red-skinned (and egg-laying) Martian princesses need to be rescued from four-armed green men and giant four-armed intelligent white apes. Mars (or, as Burroughs’s imaginary natives called it, Barsoom) was a dying world —ocher plains of dead sea bottoms, thin air that needed to be constantly replenished by atmosphere factories— but Burroughs’s slam-bang adventurous writing made it come to life. In all, Burroughs wrote a dozen Barsoom novels. But early on he discovered Tarzan, and that series made him rich (with the help, of course, of some smart early speculation in Los Angeles real estate, which is why the community he lived in is now called Tarzana).
Ray Cummings was nowhere near as successful. Nevertheless, he was one of the grand old men of science fiction. He had worked with Thomas Edison, and his novels about winged warriors on Mercury and adventure in the worlds of the atom were among the most popular of the early 1930s (those were the days when even scientists thought of an atom as a miniature solar system, with hard little electrons orbiting around a giant central nucleus).
Some of the most prolific of the early contributors are forgotten now. David H. Keller was a country doctor with a gift for satirical science fiction, though, alas, without any gift for the rhythms of English prose. Perhaps his most famous story was ‘The Revolt of the Pedestrians,” which told of a future time when generations of automobile driving had caused the legs of the human race to wither away; an aberrant young man, atavistically born with legs complete, leads a movement to go back to the good old days. Stanton A. Coblentz was a West Coast poet who decided to supplement the chancy rewards of verse with the hardly less problematical ones of science fiction. Coblentz was a satirist too; novels like Into Plutonian Depths and After 12,000 Years and The Blue Barbarians were really quite scarifying attacks on the money hunger and duplicity of Earthlings. Satire has always been a significant part of science fiction because it is easy to poke fun at Earth mores when you set your scene in a fantastic world. It’s safer too, as Swift realized when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels, and many Soviet science-fiction writers would agree.
E. E. “Doc” Smith was a special case. His book The Skylark of Space, published in 1928, was the first of a whole string of novels about supertech spaceships and weapons and interstellar police forces, with half a dozen strange new alien races and dastardly ultrascientific villains in every book. Smith invented the whole category of “space opera”—which is what Star Wars is, for instance. And Jack Williamson, who is still writing, as prolific and loved as ever at the age of eighty-one, was already a big name in the field, with the same sort of space opera as Doc Smith and a few new wrinkles of his own.
In the 1930s a lot of the old masters began to lose ground to fresh young upstarts. One of them, Stanley G. Weinbaum, called his first story A Martian Odyssey, and it marked a quantum leap in science fiction that immediately changed the plans of half the other writers in the field. What Weinbaum did was to portray a wholly alien creature as a person.
No one had done that before. Science fiction was always creeping with aliens, but they were mostly simple monsters who wanted nothing but to kill Earthlings and maybe drink their blood, or they were unbelievably humanoid wise men and women in Roman togas who wished to tell us how to eat yogurt and conform to the Eternal Righteousness. Weinbaum’s Tweel was none of that. He looked like an ostrich. He spoke little English, and none at all in simple declarative sentences; his logic was not the same as human logic, so his language could not be the same. And he was very much his own individual self, not a stick figure labeled “alien.” He inspired a thousand copies—and still does.
Stanley Weinbaum began writing relatively late (most science-fiction writers start around the time they are old enough to vote) and died tragically young, in 1935; his entire writing career had spanned only two years. But his debut as a writer was the most significant event for science fiction in the middle of that decade—at least until John W. Campbell, Jr., arrived as an editor at Astounding Science Fiction.
Campbell began writing science fiction as an undergraduate at MIT. Almost at once he became recognized as the chief competitor to Doc Smith in the space-opera league with blockbusters like The Mightiest Machine and The Black Star Passes. Campbell’s stories were wonderful to us uncritical fans at the time but, in retrospect, not that impressive. He added little to the genre that Smith hadn’t done well enough before him. A few years later Campbell began writing a different kind of science fiction, moody and almost poetic stories like “Twilight” and more complex and original ones like “Who Goes There?” (which later became, in two versions, the cult-classic film The Thing). To mark his new period in these stories, Campbell used the pen name of Don A. Stuart (the maiden name of his wife, Dona, was Stuart). Then, at the height of his powers as a writer, Campbell gave it up entirely for a new career. Street & Smith, the pulp publisher of Astounding Stories, hired him to replace its retiring science-fiction editor, and thus was born what is often called the Golden Age of John W. Campbell.
Doc Smith invented the “space opera”—what Star Wars is, for instance.
Campbell was not perfect as an editor. He had a tendency to believe in fads, cults, and bizarre notions; the highly controversial “religion” of Scientology got most of its early impetus through his magazine. He probably held his job at Astounding (later renamed Analog to satisfy Campbell’s technology-minded tastes) too long— more than thirty years, from 1937 to 1971—and for long stretches of that time he was clearly bored and simply going through the motions. But when he was at his peak, he could not be surpassed. He knew what kind of science fiction he wanted. He described it as “stories which could be printed as contemporary fiction, but in a magazine of the 25th Century.” Since not many writers were doing that sort of thing, Campbell went out to discover some who would. He found them, too. A. E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke—more than half the most famous science-fiction writers of all time made their first or first significant appearance in Campbell’s Astounding in those early years of his reign. He even persuaded some of the writers who had been around for a while—Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford D. Simak, and others—to change their ways to suit his new style, usually to their great improvement.
Campbell’s office, in a rickety old building on Seventh Avenue in New York City, just above Fourteenth Street, was a mecca for writers. The writer would sit there beside the rolltop desk while Campbell fitted a Camel into his long filter-cigarette holder and gestured with it as he explained why robots would never equal humans in intelligence (or, on alternate weeks, why they would) and what atomic power would do to electric-utility shares. If he was wrong in what he expounded, as he often was, he was delighted to buy the stories his writers produced disagreeing with him.
If magazines had continued to rule the science-fiction field, Campbell might have remained king until his death. But a new kind of competition emerged—paperbound books—and not long after the end of World War II all the old pulp-magazine houses began to fade. Science fiction was not really a pulp field, but the difference became conspicuous only gradually, as all those Westerns and air-war and sports pulps disappeared.
The difference lay in the audience. Science-fiction readers didn’t just read; they participated. Remember all those fan magazines? As the fan-magazine publishers grew more sophisticated, they began to see that there was a need unmet. The great classic novels of science fiction had always been ephemeral. The three installments of The Skylark of Space appeared in their magazine issues in August, September, and October of 1928 and then were gone. In half a dozen places around the country, fans decided to do something about that. They found printers and binders and put some of the classics into book form. Once in a great while these amateur publishers managed to get one of their titles into a few bookstores—and thus brought about their own extinction. For once it became clear that there were books in the stores by people like Isaac Asimov and E. E. Smith and Robert A. Heinlein —and that people were actually buying them—the trade publishers got the idea. Simon & Schuster tried a novel or two; Doubleday came through with a whole science-fiction program. Other publishers followed. Sketchily financed, lacking the sales forces and the high-volume printing contracts, the fan publishers couldn’t compete.
From near zero at the end of World War II, the amount of science fiction published in the United States soared until nearly one novel in four was science fiction or fantasy by the 1980s, and science-fiction works by Frank Herbert (Dune and its sequels), Arthur C. Clarke (2001 and many others), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Lucifer’s Hammer et al.), and half a dozen others were not only appearing on the best-seller lists but sometimes dominating them.
The field has come a long way from the scaly green monsters of pulp magazines, and not just in volume. The change is even more marked in that quality called respectability.
The earliest conspicuous changes were demographic. The book-review sections of major newspapers began to run columns of science-fiction reviews; noticing this, serious establishment critics and academics began to take an interest. America’s Leslie Fiedler was one of the first to look on science fiction as a literary form worth serious study; from England, that Angry Young Man, Kingsley Amis, came to Princeton University to give a series of lectures that ultimately became his pioneering critical study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell. Suddenly science fiction was a literary vogue. College professors began to teach courses in science fiction; the Modern Language Association conducted seminars on the subject; ultimately the academics and critics who specialized in it formed their own professional academy, the Science Fiction Research Association, whose current president is Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull (who, as it so happens, is also my wife).
Suddenly sci-fi was a literary vogue, and colleges began to offer courses in it.
Because of this newfound respectability, and perhaps also because the expanded markets made the money more interesting, a good many mainstream writers, like Doris Lessing and Kurt Vonnegut, tried their hands at the genre.
In the 1960s a group of science-fiction writers and critics launched, with great fanfare, what they called the New Wave in science fiction. It is hard to say just who the New Wavers were, because some of the most influential writers of that sort (Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany in particular) firmly denied they were part of the movement; but Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Judith Merril, and half a dozen others—mostly English, or Americans residing in England—joined in issuing a manifesto. No one, they declared, should write about “bloody old Jupiter” anymore; what science fiction should do was concentrate on inner space, on the world of psychedelics and the convoluted workings of the mind, on the changes in sexual mores and social styles. Moreover, this should be done in prose styles and multimedia experiments that reflected the innovations possible in literature itself, as well as in subject matter. Finally, what science fiction most urgently needed to do was to quit calling itself “science fiction” at all. They felt that “science fiction” was a pejorative term. “Speculative fiction” would be better, they judged, or just “sf.”
So the great war between the New Wavers and the Ancient Dinosaurs began to explode. It was a good, hot fire fight for a time, with the New Wavers denouncing the troglodytes for their pulpish ways, and the Dinosaurs pointing out to the rebels that experimental writing was all very well but that most experiments were statistically certain to fail. The New Wavers went on and published their experiments anyway, in magazines like the English New Worlds.
Most wars end with both sides the losers. This particular war in science fiction ended the other way: both sides won. There is hardly a ripple left of the 1960s New Wave, at least as a distinct subgenre within science fiction, but its effects have changed everyone. Old Dinosaurs like myself learned from the New Wave that there were other ways to tell a science-fiction story than the Gernsback and Campbell models, and so the best of recent science fiction is marked by greatly enhanced depth of characterization, willingness to explore the internalities of the human condition under exotic circumstances, and, not least, much more sensitivity to the sound of the language. Meanwhile, the best of the New Wavers have gone back to writing stories about “bloody old Jupiter”—or, in Brian Aldiss’s case, his fine trilogy about the invented planet Heliconia—but doing it better than ever before.
A generation ago science fiction was nearly an American monopoly. American science-fiction writers were known all over the world. One of my own early books was translated into forty-three languages that I know of (one never knows about all the pirated editions), including Finnish, Latvian, and Hebrew. There were always good writers in other countries, to be sure, but only a few, and even of that few hardly any who were known outside their own linguistic territory. And of course, then America had a recognized position in the world, as the preeminent country of technology and change.
It isn’t that anymore—not to the same degree. Every city’s skyline is beginning to look like the set for Just Imagine, and Japanese and French and Soviet people are building larger spaceships to go on more adventurous errands or designing the kinds of electronics and cars we thought only we could do. The international organization of science-fiction professionals, World SF, now has writer-members in thirty-two countries. There are nearly a hundred native science-fiction writers in Japan alone, and more than that in the USSR, and some of these other writers (the Strugatsky brothers from the Soviet Union, Sakyo Komatsu from Japan, and especially Stanislaw Lern from Poland) have world reputations, though even when their reputations extend to the United States, their works are not widely read. American readers simply are not much interested in any science fiction not originally done in English.
After World War If, technological disenchantment began to pervade sci-fi.
The science fiction of the closing years of the twentieth century has changed a good deal from that of its early days. Naturally enough; even science-fiction writers write out of the shared culture and feelings of their times, and the times have changed. H. G. Wells wrote of things that might happen. The early pulp writers of the Gernsback period and beyond wrote of things that may well happen and how they were likely to change everyone’s life. After World War II a kind of technological disenchantment began to pervade science fiction (and a good deal of the rest of the world): Atomic power had come, but it hadn’t given us limitless free energy, only Hiroshima and the nuclear balance. The science fiction of the fifties and sixties tends to be somewhat more adult, and a good deal more gloomy, than what went before.
But science fiction is a reflection of science, and science has opened up immense new horizons—some wonderful, some terrifying. Molecular biology, cloning, gene splicing, and all the other things the life scientists are learning to do have suggested any number of stories. Consequently, writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, and many others are showing us possible future worlds in which human beings change their appearance, and even their gender, almost at will. The computer is with us—only in its babyhood stage so far, but getting more pervasive and more powerful every year. Because of it, there is a whole science-fiction literature, grotesquely named cyberpunk, about how people may behave when every human brain has a computer implant to help it learn, remember, and act.
It hasn’t been all gain for the science-fiction writer. As science goes on converting science-fiction ideas into hard facts, any number of stories can no longer be written—they’ve happened—but the scientists give with one hand what they have taken away with the other. New opportunities present themselves with every fresh-cloned genetic string and smaller, faster microchip and new discovery about the evolution of the universe. However many ranges on the landscape of the imagination we may cross, there is always another one on the horizon. The future of the future remains promising.