The Hidden History of Science Fiction

I recently attended Readercon, my favorite science fiction convention, and while there, I moderated a panel called “Capturing the Hidden History of Science Fiction”. I was fortunate to have a great group of panelists including Barry N. Malzberg, Eileen Gunn, Fred Lerner and Darrell Schweitzer. For a Friday night at 9pm, it was a standing-room-only crowd. That surprised me: I hadn’t realized so many people were as interested in this “hidden history.” The discussion was a good one, I think, but I wanted to explore the subject further here. Much of what was discussed on the panel was of academic value. What I wonder is: how much of this hidden history has value to run-of-the-mill science fiction fans and the new generation of science fiction writers?

What is meant by “hidden history”? This wasn’t well explained or explored in the Readercon panel and I think that most people have their own idea about what this means. For me, it can mean a number of different things. “Hidden” is a loaded term, of course, but what I meant by “hidden history” was really that history of science fiction that is difficult to uncover. One classic example is the (probably apocryphal) story behind how Dianetics and Scientology got its start at a Hydra Club meeting in the late 1940s. A better example for our purposes is Mark Rich‘s biography C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary. Reading such a book raises as many questions as it answers. For instance:


How do you go about verifying this “hidden history” when many of the key people involved are long dead? Mark Rich seemed to be able to locate vast amounts of correspondence as well as interview numerous people to get to the core of his book.

Another question it raises is how this history impacts the underlying work. By knowing things about Cyril Kornbluth the writer, do you read and interpret his work differently than if you didn’t know those things at all?

And this leads to a further, vitally important question in an exploration such as this: is it important? Academic value aside, do fans really care who slept with whom and how a particular story came into being? Or is the work enough to stand on its own without the need for this hidden history?

I can’t answer these questions for everyone else, but I can provide my perspective. I first became interested in the “history” of science fiction back in college. I attended the University of California, Riverside, home of the Eaton Collection, a special collection of science fiction, fantasy and horror. It was there that I began reading about science fiction, learning its history and the history of those who helped to create the genre. Why did I become interested in this history? It coincided with my beginning to write science fiction stories and I was interested in how the big names of our genre got their start. I thought I could learn from their example. But I quickly became fascinated by the rich, complicated and often contentious history of the genre as well.

I do believe that while a science fiction story can stand on its own, the history behind that story, and the context in which it was written, helps to provide additional insight into the work as well as the evolution of the genre. There is an underlying psychology to the creation of these stories that I find fascinating. And of course, I find the history of the authors fascinating because for the longest time, I wanted to be just like them (and in many instances, I still do). We are fortunate in that our genre is self-documenting. A lot of people within the field have been its historians. On the other hand, these aren’t academic histories and one must wonder how much of the information you can trust. A history of fandom by Sam Moskowitz will certainly be tainted in one direction than say, a similar history by Frederik Pohl.

Then, too, the hidden history is often a darker history. The Kornbluth biography did not paint Frederik Pohl in a good light. I’ve always enjoyed Pohl’s writing, but every time I read something by Pohl, it is hard to put that biography out of my mind. The same is true for Heinlein. I haven’t yet read the Patterson biography of Heinlein, but I read Grumbles From The Grave years ago and wished that I hadn’t read it afterward. But you can’t un-know these things. This begs the question: at what point is this hidden history better left hidden? Are there some things that aren’t worth knowing and where do you draw that line?

Being able to read a science fiction story and grasp the full context of it in a historical perspective usually adds to my enjoyment of the story. For me it is like seeing a puzzle piece fitting neatly into a larger puzzle. It is that complete puzzle that I am ultimately after.

But not everyone feels this way. For many fans, a story exists in isolation, and there is nothing wrong with this. In other cases, science fiction stories make readers think; they reflect back current society through a fun-house mirror to give us new perspectives on ourselves. All of this can be enjoyed without any knowledge or awareness of this hidden history.

Where do you stand? Do you find yourself reading science fiction works on their own terms? Does this hidden history add any value for you? And if so, when it is better to leave that hidden history hidden?

7 thoughts on “The Hidden History of Science Fiction”

  1. @MarcL – Fred, not Ed. Two different people.

    “Does this hidden history add any value for you?”

    No. For the most part, “hidden history” is usually code for ugly gossip. If what you learn by delving into this hidden history upsets you or changes your opinion of the parties involved, it’s probably because you mistakenly believed they were more than just us ordinary folk who make mistakes, take craps, and occasionally lie, cheat, or steal.

    It can be interesting to know some of the behind the scenes activity in any endeavor and sometimes, but rarely, it can be enlightening to see how an author’s real life relates to their work.

    But usually not. Authors are just people, even the ones who claim otherwise. Read and enjoy their work and stay out of their personal lives and you’ll be fine.

    Mike

     

  2. MarcL, MikeP is right, Fred Lerner is an academic and has written about the history of science fiction. When I first saw his name on the panel, I too thought it might have been a misprint. But I’m so glad I got to meet him as he is a really nice guy, knowledgeable about the field and had good input and insights on the panel.

    MikeP, I suspect that is what a lot of people think, and I was curious about it because it does show a kind of difference from the academic viewpoint. Michael Dirda was in the audience for the panel and was kind of pulled into the discussion–the moderator was, um, still learning the ropes–and said that “all knowledge is good” and that is certainly true from an academic perspective. I enjoy the historical aspects, but as I mentioned, there are things I have learned that I wished I hadn’t.

    I will say that it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I think of authors as “just people.” I grew up reading these folks and they were (and are) like heroes to me and, sure, when you get to know them they are just people, but it takes a mental adjustment before I can really get used to it.

     

  3. All history is hidden. Constantly being picked over, revised and reworked from a macro to a micro-level. Example from my current armchair historian interest – Waterloo – where some argue that it was the Germans that ultimately won the battle, rather than anything Wellington’s centre did.

    As a subject, it is constantly being debated for its value and contribution, even its objectivity, which to me, is a healthy sign.

     

    All science fiction is a vision of a future, but deeply rooted in the present, again, in my opinion, usually the social problems and ills.

     

    I feel you can do both, look at the history in which a work is rooted but yet enjoy that same work on its own merit. I think HG Wells is a better yarn spinner than most modern sci fi writers I’ve read, even if some of his projections of bleak futures seem somewhat outdated and rooted in his social background.

  4. I find that I can separate the author as a person and their beliefs but sometimes not their behavior. For example, one well known editor was a real jerk to me, and although he’s written a greatly regarded book on publishing life, I find myself struggling to take his advice when I thought he clearly violated it in how he behaved. On the other hand, writers express political opinions which I find offensive all the time, yet I can still read their work. The only time those political opinions would effect my reading is if they preached it in their book and couldn’t write any characters with pov divergent from that. So I think the hidden history can be fascinating but it’s much easier to read about the antics of writers long dead than writers I met at a con last week.

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