The Wayward Time Traveler: Old-School Science Fiction Flame Wars


Welcome to the inaugural post of Jamie Todd Rubin‘s new column, The Wayward Time Traveler, in which he explores the science fiction of yesteryear. – Editor

I have a theory that the Brass Tacks letter column that John Campbell provided early in his tenure as editor of Astounding Science Fiction helped to improve the quality of science fiction and make it what it is today. Campbell encouraged discussion and dialog between fans, authors and artists. Science fiction fans were then (and are still today) passionate people with strong opinions. I think those opinions expressed in the letter columns helped shape science fiction as much as the stories that appeared in the magazine.

These letters have been on my mind quite a bit lately. I am making my way through each of the issues of Astounding from July 1939 through December 1950–what I call my vacation in the Golden Age and while many of the stories are great fun, the letter columns are fascinating. I haven’t had time to talk about them in any detail elsewhere, but considering their importance in shaping our genre, they deserve further discussion.


It is not hard to draw a line from those old letter columns to the various discussion boards and blog comment threads that we have today. And anyone who follows today’s discussion boards and genre blogs knows that, from time-to-time, tempers flare up to the point of ignition and we have what we call a flame war. Flame wars are nothing new, however. And you can see the roots of those wars right there in those early letters in Astounding.

A typical letter from a 1939 issue of Astounding starts by praising the magazine. It goes on to give a relative rating of the magazine (“it wasn’t as good as last month”; “the quality of the magazine keeps going up”), and then provides a detailed ranking of all of the stories and art work. Opinions of the art work surprised me because they were more passionate than opinions of the stories. But it occurred to me that in 1939, no one had television programs to compare with what they read in the pages. Artists images were all readers knew of spaceships and Martian landscapes.

To get a full flavor of this, you’ll have to allow me to quote from some of these letters:

As far as I can figure out there is no reason for “Melody and Moons” and “Coils of Time” [in the May 1939 issue]. The first is just trash and doesn’t do justice to either Private Kelton or Kent Casey. “Coils of Time” was a mess and had no business in as fine a magazine as Astounding.

In speaking of artists, one young fan (for whom a major award in the genre is now named) flamed the following:

I have often vociferously asserted Schneeman is tops and Binder and Wesso stink. Especially Binder. So help me I could go on for pages and pages about how completely and utterly devoid of any useful quality his stuff is. I infinitely prefer no illustrations at all to illustrations by Binder.

Another assessment in the August 1939 issue from a fan:

Now I cannot refrain from giving hell to some of your writers. I would like to take W. van Lorne and put him in my vibration machine for a week… after that I doubt whether he will continue to write lousy vibrational junk.

There is plenty of praise in these letters as well, but it seems to me that the pans are often more powerful than the praise, and it is in this respect that I think these old school flame wars helped shape science fiction. Here was a genre in which the fans were encouraged to participate. It so happened that the nature of the stories appealed to an argumentative bunch and I can’t imagine an artist or author coming away from the letter column feeling unscathed. It seems to me that authors and artists may have outwardly derided the feedback, but inwardly–the good ones at least–embraced it and used it as a means of improving their stories and artwork. Fans were relentless, but at the same time, they were also fair. When an artist or writer improved, a fan was opt to notice:

Kent Casey undoubtedly improves more and more. Private Kelton is becoming one of science fiction’s star performers.

If we incorporate fantasy into the over-arching genre, then I have to ask: what other genres encourages this interaction between fan and artist? What other genre has built in an evolutionary mechanism for improving the quality of the stories it produces. Isaac Asimov wrote that when he broke into the field, it was relatively easy to do so, but if he were trying to break into the field in, say, the 1980s, it would have been impossible. There were too many good writers. The collective improvement in quality over that 50-year span was thanks in large part to science fiction fans keeping the writers and artists honest. And it is a tradition that we carry on today. It is why science fiction is taught in school and taken much more seriously as a literature than it was in its infancy. (Some readers might dispute this: flame war in the comments, please.)

So I’d like to offer a big hearty thank you to those fans of yesteryear who were not afraid to hold back their public opinion (every letter printed the name and address of its author). Because of your efforts and your old-school flame wars, fans of today still have the opportunity to read the genre that they love.

And to carry on the tradition themselves.

7 thoughts on “The Wayward Time Traveler: Old-School Science Fiction Flame Wars”

  1. Jamie,

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on Astounding from the early years on your blog and it’s great to see you over here on the Signal.

    One thing you didn’t touch on here was the differences between the letter columns in the pulps and the legacy formats -

    It is not hard to draw a line from those old letter columns to the various discussion boards and blog comment threads that we have today.

    - you alluded to.

    The letter columns in Astounding, Thrilling Wonder &c did post addresses and full names, which reveals a major difference between then and now.  Today, flame wars are encouraged and enabled by the vaunted anonymity of the internet.  The uses to which such commentary is often put are 180 degrees apart from those of the golden age.  Back then, fans used the letter columns to get together, to correspond with like-minded individuals.  These contacts led to the formation of clubs, the publication of fanzines and get-togethers which became conventions.  Today, the discussion is more often than not used to drive people apart into separate camps.

    Another major difference was the time and care that went into composing one of those review letters.  Try ‘responding’ to a comment thread with a manual typewriter and then waiting a month to see whether it gets posted or not, and another month to see if anyone responds. 

    If the same technological limitations were imposed on the internet, most of the discourse would simply melt away as not being worth the effort.  What remainied would at least be thought out.

    True, there is an historical connection between message boards, social networks, forums and the letter cols of the pulps, but the usage and effect of the legacy is far, far different (and much more divisive) than their original intent, which was to bring fans together and create a community.  One community.  Today we have one community for every opinion, and little meaningful dialogue between those communities.

  2. Steve, nice to see you over here. You make some good points, and I think the bottom line is that as it became easier to take part in the machinery of fandom, science fiction got both the good and the bad. Now everyone who wants to has a voice and a platform and that means you get trolls as well as meaningful dialog. While I’d agree there is often a community for every opinion, there are also corners of the Internet today where fans who enjoy the genre get together to discuss it. I think SF Signal is one good example of that.

    There did seem to be a “core” of fans who carried on much of those early letter columns. Asimov and Damon Knight were some of the more prolific letter writers and there were others, like Thomas S. Gardner, whose name I don’t recognize, but who had letters in nearly every issue. I imagine that like today, many people lurked on the outside, never sending in a letter, content with just reading what other people had to say.

  3. Interesting column and Steve’s response also.

    One thing I’d point out is that letters pages in any print format show what the editor chooses to show. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt in regards to not cherry-picking what they print, they almost certainly did (and had to simply for space considerations.) I suspect Astounding got some letters that today’s internet folk would find familiar. I don’t disagree with you, not at all, but I also think the editors, either consciously or unconsciously, drove that positive influence with their choices.

    Mike

     

  4. Mike, good point about what gets printed and what doesn’t. Seems to me that Campbell was pretty even-handed with critical letters vs. praise, especially when it came to art. Astounding’s  Analytical Laboratory was all about taking those varied opinions, good or bad, and making some sense of out them. But we don’t know what letters were not printed and likely we’ll never know. There was a volume of Campbell’s letters published some years back (with an excellent introduction by Barry Malzberg) and that might provide some insight.

  5. Did you pack Alva Rogers travel guide to ASF, A REQUIEM FOR ASTOUNDING, before leaving on your vacation in the Golden Age?  :-)

  6. Another place where you had letter columns like this was in comic books. Readers clearly had a role in influencing the direction of the serialized narratives. That “conversation” has also how mostly moved to the internet…

  7. Mark, I started on this trip without a travel guide, although I’ve got some knowledgable folks helping me out with information when I need it. I’m trying to do this more or less like the fans back then did it without peeking too much ahead. ;-)  Of course, I have some foreknowledge, but I’m trying to keep that to a minimum. It makes it more interesting. But thanks for the recommendation; I’ll definitely check it out when this vacation is all over.

    Scott, I’ve always been a s.f. guy but never gotten into comic books, but I can imagine the letter columns there being equally active and opinionated, since you’re talking about like-minded people. 

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