I think that science fiction is dead. I think that what we see published under that label today is a kind of zombie genre, kept alive more by the commercial demands of the media – publishing, movies, TV, comics and journalism – than by the urgent questions that formed the seeds of the genre as it emerged last century.
I’m conflicted by doubt of course: is SF really dead or am I just a miserable old git? Many other signs point to the latter being so.
For my own peace of mind I need to know. I need to understand what has changed and why: is the genre dead or have I simply lost my capacity for wonder? To test the vital signs of science fiction today, I need a solid idea of what those vital signs are. I need to make sure I’ll know them when I see them before I declare them absent from the contemporary scene. For that reason, I’ve been looking for a way to re-familiarise myself with classic SF.
I came across this set of three volumes in a second hand bookshop in New Zealand, a snap at forty dollars for all three. Each volume covers a decade, starting with the foundation of Amazing Stories in 1926, with the third ending in 1955. (There’s a fourth volume, covering 56 to 65, which would have been handy to have, but it looks like that one didn’t a proper distribution and is hard to come by.)
It’s my feeling that the nature of science fiction is as much about the nature of its audience as about the texts themselves. Ashley’s chosen starting point seems to back this up.
There were of course stories of the general type we’ve come to know as science fiction long before 1926. Ashely points to Frankenstein in his introduction, as a starting point, but there are a few dozen candidates in various forms going back to the ancients. Where it started exactly isn’t important, I don’t think, in comparison to the clear growth in this type of thing during the 19th century. That makes Frankensteina pretty good staring place: whether later writers were directly influenced by Shelley or not, there was definitely something in the air that began around about that time.
This came to an early first peak in the work of H G Welles and Jules Verne who examined the transformations to the world that might come from scientific knowledge. Starting with the industrial revolution, the rhythms of daily began changing for everyone. This new type of story seemed to be the first to describe the changes that were happening in the world and answer the question, what do all these new discoveries mean?
Ashley describes three general types of story common before the founding of Amazing Stories:
‘Firstly the scientific romance epitomised by Burroughs and Merritt that appeared in Munsey Publications. Secondly the scientific extrapolation of Gernsback, and thirdly the weird and bizarre science fiction of Weird Tales.’
It’s a break-down that still seems current today – adventure stories, hard SF and stories that use SF elements for literary effect.
Ashley’s choice of the foundation of Amazing Stories as his starting date sees him side with category two as ‘real’ SF. Clearly, there will never be hard lines where it begins and ends, but the heart of SF is with stories featuring real science in a believable futuristic world. That’s the sort of story I’m thinking about when I say ‘science fiction is dead’. Adventure stories in exotic locales and various forms of surrealism or satire have been a constant in literature. Today they exist in abundance. Just about every movie and TV show you might see featured in SFX or spoilered on io9 belong in these groups.
But this other type of story was something new in the popular culture. Before Amazing Stories, Gernsback had discovered the growing public appetite in his non-fiction publications, Radio News and Science & Invention. He coined the term ‘scientification’ for a special issue of the latter which included half a dozen SF stories and articles extrapolating future trends. The launch of Amazing Stories in 1926 was the spark into life of something that had been building for a decade or so already.
Ashley’s introduction points to two important developments in the genre in this first decade. The first is important for the type of story science fiction became. In 1933 Frederick Tremaine became the editor of Astounding Stories. He immediately made it known he was looking for ‘stories completely original in idea, treatment and scope.’ He called these stories ‘thought variants’. This seems to be the point where SF moved away from super-science stories showing off scientific knowledge to stories that examined the consequences of scientific theories and technological innovations.
The second important development was the evolution of the audience. Pulp magazines used to publish addresses with letters in the letters column, which gave fans a way to contact each other and fandom was born. When groups began forming, Gernsback saw another opportunity and formed the Science Fiction League.
Since then, the activities and opinions of fandom have formed an important part of the way SF has developed. I’d say that without it, we wouldn’t have such a distinct division between SF/F and mainstream fiction. Most SF and fantasy would fit into other genres – crime, adventure, thrillers – without much effort and a lot of SF authors might be thought of more as writer/journalists or writer/scientists than members of this other group.
The 1999 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says, interestingly, in its entry on fandom: ‘It has been suggested that, if SF ceased to exist, fandom would continue to function quite happily without it.’ This, I think, is where we are. Because of this commercial resource, something called science fiction is still published and placed in bookshops labelled as such. It’s created a tribe of readers who identify with a genre of fiction as intensely as some identify with genres of music. The frequent complaints about the absence of science fiction writers from book pages and mainstream awards are more concerned with tribal affiliation than the quality or nature of the fiction.
In the meantime, mainstream literary culture is also in the process of claiming back a lot of the tricks and elements that SF and fantasy fans has claimed belonged exclusively to them. This eats away at the generic distinction claimed by SF – if it doesn’t belong to a tribe, it’s not a distinct thing. Like crime or thriller or romance, it’s a set of choices a writer can choose to make or not depending on the needs of an individual work.
However, there is something to the complaint made by SF fans that mainstream authors are just picking over the dry bones of well-used themes. I think that’s generally true. Innovation and originality is one of the key qualities of SF: it moves with the technological Zeitgeist. That’s why Tremaine’s statement is important. Charles Horning made a similar statement a couple of years later as editor of Wonder Stories, claiming the high ground in the search for stories ‘so different from the old days of rehashed themes and stereotyped characters.’
However, my feeling is that SF has been mined out. I don’t think there’s anything new to say about the themes and questions that SF sought to answer. Partly that’s because I think we’ve internalised the messages that SF was built upon. The idea of scientific progress isn’t the source of fear and optimism it once was: we’ve had a century or so now of rapid technological change and it’s pretty much part of our mundane existence. In the lifetime of our grand-parents we’ve gone from manual exchanges to iPhones; the idea of that kind of change for a similar period in the future is now just one of the man-on-the-street’s assumptions about the world rather than a frightening or exciting new idea.
In the meantime, a lot of the possibilities we imagined have turned out to be impossible or non-existent: telepathy, artificial intelligence, easy inter-planetary travel, the colonisation of space and abundant alien civilization. The pressing questions associated with these ideas and explorations of their unseen consequences are therefore less pressing. They still exist as metaphorical constructs for authors who want to dramatise philosophical or ethical problems. They are a useful background for conflict for military or adventure fiction that wants to avoid difficult moral and political questions raised by those genres in the real world. But they no longer hold the power of potential worlds. No one now seriously believes in Dan Dare, Robbie the Robot or The Tomorrow People (or, if you like, Hari Seldon, Susan Calvin or Ben Reich.)
Between these two elements, my feeling is that hard speculative SF as a distinct category of fiction has lost its power address the matters that led to its creation. That’s what I mean when I say ‘science fiction is dead’. This reading project is about finding out if I’m right: like a good SF fan I’m going to test my hypothesis against the evidence.
In the next few months I’ll blog about each story and we’ll see what progress was made in SF’s Golden Age. When I’ve done that, I’ll have a think about how I’m going to undertake a similar exercise on fiction from the previous decade, where so much new thinking in SF inhabits novels rather than stories (another factor in the dissolution of fandom) and maybe even at the movies and on TV.
In the meantime, though, let’s get started with the stories.