In college, I had a renowned creative writing professor try to convince me to stop writing “genre” fiction and put my talents to better use. My answer to him was to ask why I would give up writing something I loved for something I had no interest in? I would be like me saying to this professor, “Stop trying to be Raymond Carver and start trying to be more like Robert Heinlein.” I could be wrong here, but based on my experience with non-genre fiction writers, writing is supposed to be a painful, soul-wrenching process that turns a mirror inward to reveal viscera and entrails. And when these non-genre fiction writers see genre writers actually enjoying the process of storytelling, when they see them turning out stories with smiles on their faces, they look upon it as something beneath contempt, something rude that you’d find in the gutter.
And so what if they do? People who write science fiction have different motivations for doing so, but in most all that I know and in most all that I read, there is one common thread: you can tell that the person creating the fiction loves what he or she is doing. I love to read science fiction. I consider myself a fan first and a writer second. But when I am writing science fiction, I love it, every minute of it, and it isn’t a painful and soul-searching process for me, it is pure joy and fun, rolling around in the gutter with a story in your teeth and your clothes filthy and in tatters and seeing just how things will come out.
It begs the question, why does science fiction have to be high literature…?
There is nothing quite like the discovery of science fiction. Somewhere in the world, a youngster is attracted to a book the way a planet is drawn to a star. It is something they haven’t quite seen before. It doesn’t take place in the mundane world that they’ve become familiar with. Instead, it takes place in fantastic worlds out among the stars. Whole universes are born in those pages. Firsthand glimpses of the planets of our solar system, as well as adventures to distant parts of the galaxy. Alternate earths take shape. We find that we can travel backwards and forward in time. Indeed, as a burgeoning fan of science fiction, we find that we have truly become wayward time travelers.
As we progress further along that gravity well we call science fiction we soon become familiar with the names of the people who create those worlds. And if we stick with it, if we love it enough, those people sometimes transcend the heroes they write about, becoming themselves demigods to us. For some of us, their influence is so strong, their gravity well so powerful, that we want to be just like them. Fortunately, science fiction is a pay-it-forward genre, unlike almost anything else out there. Our heroes welcome interaction and encourage participation. And when you finally get to meet some of them, well, it really is like taking a walk in a garden of the demigods.
One of my favorite science fiction stories of all-time is Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” which appeared in Astounding some 72 years ago in May 1939. The story is about the last of the Neanderthals, who finds himself unable to compete with the better equipped homo sapiens. It is a sad, haunting story, watching a proud species come to an end from the inside. Reading it the first time made me wonder how much of their history was lost forever when the last of them disappeared from the face of the earth.
As I said, that story appeared 72 years ago at the dawn of the Golden Age of science fiction. Seventy-two years is a lifetime for many people. Most of the great science fiction writers from that era are gone: all of the Big Three, all of the pre-Campbell writers who made the transition to Campbell’s Astounding, even those writers who lived particularly long lives like Jack Williamson and L. Sprague de Camp are no longer with us. There are few writers and fans from that era still around, but in my lifetime those last veterans of the Golden Age will pass quietly into the good night and an important door connecting our field’s history to the past will be closed forever. Because, as I have discovered in my Vacation in the Golden Age, the stories that we read and love (or hate) are only the thin outer layer of our history. Peel back that layer and there is a fascinating, untold history of our genre that says as much about its evolution as the stories that make it up. And it would be a shame to lose that history.
One of the more recent criticisms of science fiction is that it never predicted the Internet. I object to this premise on two counts:
First is that, in my opinion, science fiction is not a predictive literature. It gets interpreted as such because its stories are often set in the future. But I look at science fiction as an exploratory literature, one that investigates possible future, how society might react to technological change. I don’t believe the Heinlein’s Future History stories were meant to be predictive any more than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was meant to be predictive. They are both exploring possible futures.
John W. Campbell wrote an editorial in the October 1939 Astounding in which he talked about his future vision of robots. By late 1939, robots were already a growing trope of science fiction and within the next year, Isaac Asimov would begin revolutionizing that trope with the first of his Robot stories, giving us the vision of robots that we have today. Campbell, in this editorial, argued,
The world is already full of thousands of robots, working busily and intelligently on their assigned tasks. Naturally, they don’t appear manlike because a man makes a very poor instrument for any given task.
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.