Two Science Fiction Histories

Covers of two SF histories from Gollancz Gateway

What does seem clear is that there was something in the early lives of nearly all the published writers in the group that isolated them from their contemporaries. Blish, Pohl, Michel, Merril, and I were only children. Pohl, Blish, Wilson, Lowndes, Merril and Michel lost one parent each in childhood, by death or divorce. Wilson skipped three grades in grammar school. Asimov’s time was so taken up by his work in the candy store, his education and his writing that there was not much left over for normal relationships with other young people.

Damon Knight, The Futurians (1977)

I’ve recently been reading a little about the history of science fiction, and for this post have chosen a couple of older volumes reissued by Gollancz’s SF Gateway as e-books in 2013.

My first choice is Damon Knight’s* history of a tiny and short-lived science-fiction society, The Futurians—it lasted for seven years (1938-1945) and never exceeded twenty members, but it produced a disproportionate number of significant authors and editors, some of whose names you’ll see listed in my quotation at the head of this post. The Futurians were, in a way, a counterculture movement, staying outside the influential orbit of editor John W. Campbell at Astounding magazine—only Isaac Asimov, who drifted away from the Futurians early, crossed that divide and became a “Campbell author”.

Knight was a Futurian for a few months, which he remembers as a long, golden summer—his first time away from home, at liberty in New York and under the Bohemian influence of a crowd of impoverished writers given to communal living and endless bickering. In the 1970s, he tracked down and interviewed the surviving Futurians, and pieced together this history of science-fiction fandom in New York during the ’30s and ’40s, and the story of “what happened next” when the Futurians disbanded.

There are a number of fascinating themes. Firstly, they were an intensely political crowd, with the exception of Asimov. Most seem to have been communists, or at least sympathetic to communist ideals, apart from James Blish, who described himself as a “book fascist”—he claimed to admire the principles of fascism, while deploring the way in which they were being applied in the world. (This, during the 1930s, in a roomful of communists, was perhaps a deliberately contrary stance by Blish.)

Second, they were horribly poor. Blish’s wife, Virginia Kidd, recalled a time in the late ’40s when they survived on thirty-three cents for three months, eating mainly from sacks of rice “liberated” by a friend who was an army nurse. Frederik Pohl worked as a writers’ agent for a few years, but had to give up in 1953:

“… I had just run out of steam. I owed a lot of money, and it was hard for me to see how to get out of debt while I was doing that. It took me ten years to pay everybody off. I paid writers off in less time than that, but there were things like the Internal Revenue. They finally caught up with me in 1965. The IRS agent said, ‘How could you not file a return for seventeen years?’
“I said, ‘I didn’t have any money.’
“He said, ‘But didn’t you know you would be in trouble?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I knew I’d be in trouble, but I was already in trouble.’”

Third, they argued all the time. About almost everything. Disagreements over the True Purpose of science fiction caused several rifts, some very long-lasting. Money was another problem, since everyone was poor, and their various communal living arrangements would often come up short of rent at the end of the month. And sometimes those Futurians who were editors would find themselves unable to pay for stories they’d published, which had been written by other Futurians. The culmination of their constant argumentation came when the eternally combative Donald Wollheim sued the other Futurians for $25,000 for “injury to his professional reputation”.

Fourth, they drank to a ludicrous and positively life-threatening extent. Here’s Frederik Pohl again:

“And next morning I woke up with the worst hangover I have ever had in my whole life—oh, God—and Cyril [Kornbluth] was in bed with me. And the room was covered with what few bits of our clothing we had taken off, a shirt here and a shoe there, and about half of it was soaked with blood. And Cyril woke up, very pale, and we looked at each other, and I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and stood under the hot water for about an hour, trying to wake up and put the world back together. When I got out Cyril was dressed, and he said, Well, I think I’d better go, Fred. So long, have a nice war.’ And I gathered up the bloodiest things and put them in the hamper or something so the chambermaid wouldn’t faint, and went off to work at Popular, feeling very fragile. I’d been there about fifteen minutes when the phone rang, and it was Johnny Michel, saying, ‘Fred. We will never forgive you for last night.’”

The previous evening, it transpires, Kornbluth and Pohl had sworn a blood oath to murder another Futurian, Robert Lowndes. (See “they argued all the time”, above.) Michel went on to develop a serious alcohol problem in later life; Kornbluth was shaping up to do the same, but died as a result of uncontrolled hypertension at the age of just 34.

Fifth, although they were all pretty young, they seem to have been disproportionately immature and socially dysfunctional:

“The Futurians were a very motley crew,” [Judith Merril] said, and Virginia Kidd, who was sitting beside her in my living room, put in, “Almost everybody was callow, one way or another.”
“Callow, or extremely unattractive, or both,” said Merril. “I felt I belonged very much in such a group, and I think this was characteristic of everyone there, that each of us regarded ourselves as grotesque, and felt comfortable in a gathering of grotesques.”

If all this makes them seem like a bit of an unlikeable crew … well, yes. I found it a slightly difficult read, because of that. And also because of the quite hellish snatches of sub-poetry Knight salvages from the Futurians’ newsletters and correspondence. But it’s nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the advent of “science-fiction fandom”, and the early struggles of people who were eventually to become part of the science-fiction establishment.

Michael Moorcock and the writers he gathered about him were conscious, even self-conscious, about science fiction, its symbolism. its immediacy, its responsibilities, and above all its possibilities. They were the first generation in science fiction to consider and discuss their work principally as art, not as cult, didactic tradition, intellectual pastime, or anything else.

Colin Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition (1983)

From the emerging science-fiction establishment of the 1950s and ’60s, to the counterculture that responded to it. This is a revised version of Colin Greenland’s PhD thesis, and it’s a fairly dense volume, concentrating on literary criticism rather than jolly anecdotes. It discusses the evolution of the British “New Wave” in science fiction, under the tutelage of Michael Moorcock and in the pages of the magazine New Worlds, which he edited between 1964 and 1971.

As my quotation at the head of this section suggests, Moorcock and his allies had ambitions to turn science fiction into literature—to overcome the stigma of “genre fiction” that SF had created for itself with its emphasis on science and problem-solving, at the expense of characterization and writing style.

Attracted by the imaginative potential of sf and inspired by its best, they felt strongly that it was encumbered by its worst and struck out accordingly. They saw no reason why sf should be segregated from the rest of fiction, and resented editors, writers and readers who seemed to be in conspiracy to keep it insulated, governed only by low standards hardly changed for forty years.

Under Moorcock’s editorship, and strongly influenced by J.G. Ballard, New Worlds began to concentrate on stories that explored the “inner space” of the human mind, and which used non-standard narrative techniques influenced by the Surrealists, by the psychedelic movement, and by Structuralism. At the time, there was in the air a strong sense that the world of the 1960s was falling apart and being rebuilt, and that reality was a more fluid concept than anyone had previously believed.

Greenland seems very much on board with all this, as you might guess, though he later went on to achieve commercial success with his Tabitha Jute novels, which are good old-fashioned space operas.

One of the many deficiencies in “traditional SF” that New Worlds sought to address was its very odd relationship with sex. Magazine cover art of the time overflowed with images of young women clad either in rags or in skin-tight garments, whereas the stories more commonly featured male characters falling into peril or frustration as a result of the fatuous behaviour of their female companions. (Greenland’s chapter devoted to this induces hilarity and depression in equal measure.)

But New Worlds‘ experiments with writing about sex brought almost immediate charges of “obscenity”, and major newsagents, like W.H. Smith and John Menzies, decline to stock it. Despite Moorcock’s efforts to finance the magazine using his own massive output of popular fantasy novels, combined with income from a modest Arts Council grant, New Worlds was ultimately unable to reach enough interested readers to keep it financially viable.

Greenland deals in depth with the writings of three authors strongly associated with New Worlds. First comes Brian Aldiss, who was instrumental in securing that Arts Council grant that helped keep the magazine afloat for a while. Ironically, Aldiss wanted nothing to do with the New Wave, and had serious doubts about its urge to deny reality and abandon conventional narrative techniques:

In 1966 Brian W. Aldiss wrote to Judith Merril, anthologist and ‘priestess’ of the New Wave:
“It’s great to be even a splash in a new wave. But even the newest wave gets cast upon the shore. One feature of this particular wave (which I suspect to be a journalistic invention of yours and Mike Moorcock’s, ultimately of no service to any writers willy-nilly involved …) is a strong tendency to abolish plot. Plot, I mean, in the grander sense of structure.… But I’m strongly against the abolition of structure in fiction: or at least in long fiction; for you will find most fiction to be a history of a process…. I’m for structure in fiction because I believe fiction must mirror and/ or shape reality and because I believe the external world has structure […]

Then there’s Ballard. Here he is in 1973, expressing an idea that seems very salient now:

I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

Whereas Aldiss sought always to keep an anchor in reality, Ballard, true to his surrealist principles, disdained it, and dropped his characters into hallucinatory worlds and situations.

And then Moorcock, dashing off commercially successful fantasy novels that subtly subverted the genre conventions. He has written about these in his introduction to a recent Gollancz collection of his work:

Though I did them quickly, I didn’t write them cynically. I have always believed, somewhat puritanically, in giving the audience good value for money. I enjoyed writing them, tried to avoid repetition, and through each new one was able to develop a few more ideas.

Meanwhile, as Greenland reports, he was lambasting the Old Guard of science fiction:

His call for revolution in the science fiction ghetto included derogatory remarks on the state of ‘the field’ at the time, deploring the lack of ‘passion, subtlety, irony, original characterisation, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs, colour, density, depth, and, on the whole, real feeling from the writer’. He affirmed that ‘the day of the boy-author writing boys’ stories got up to look like grown-ups’ stories will soon be over.’

(Apart from that, Mr Moorcock, how are you enjoying genre SF?)

Moorcock’s own response to the deficiencies he perceived in the “science fiction ghetto” was to write his Jerry Cornelius stories, “discarding all the traditional fixities of narrative (time, place, causation, character development)”. Instead, Cornelius and his associates drift through a hallucinatory kaleidoscope of narratives, dying and being reborn in subtly different personae, under anagrammatically shifted new names. The texts are heavy with external allusions; chapter titles seem to be irrelevant or misplaced; conversations seem to go nowhere, while apparently freighted with meaning for the collocutors. But:

Moorcock has given repeated instructions that Corneliana are not meant to be studied. ‘It was never my intention to write “difficult” books…. They don’t have to be “understood” to be enjoyed. If they give you a good feeling, that’s enough.’

The New Wave ultimately faltered and died, as Aldiss had predicted. Either the necessary audience just wasn’t there, or New Worlds failed to reach it. One problem was that, for every Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock, there were a hundred imitators who felt that all they had to do was construct a non-story with a bizarre narrative structure, and they were doing New Wave writing. And, for lack of alternatives, some of this poor quality stuff found its way into New Worlds, and made the entire enterprise easy to dismiss as, to use Isaac Asimov’s word, “froth”.

But without the New Wave, we’d never have seen Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head, Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, or Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet.

Both of these volumes turned out to be harder work than I’d anticipated—The Futurians because of how annoying all these people were in their youth; The Entropy Exhibition because of the sheer depth of Greenland’s delvings into literary criticism. But I found both worthwhile reads, which helped me better understand a critical period in the evolution of science fiction, the three decades between 1940 and 1970.

* I’ve previously known Damon Knight for his editorship of the ground-breaking Orbit series of anthologies; his delightfully corrosive science fiction criticism, some of which you can find collected in In Search Of Wonder (1956); and his oft-anthologized short story, “To Serve Man” (1950). If you don’t know the punchline to this last item, I suggest you go and read it now—it’s just seven pages and is available in the copy of Galaxy magazine archived here.
For more about John Campbell and his stable of authors, see Alec Navala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018).
I have lamentable history with the difference between what Moorcock wrote to support his magazine and his family, and what Moorcock wrote out of dedication to his art. In 1975, at the tender age of eighteen, I found myself sitting on the floor in a student flat somewhere, attempting to impress a female art student who was four years my senior and impossibly self-assured. Between puffs on her slim black cheroot, she mentioned her regard for the works of Michael Moorcock, and I immediately burbled my enthusiasm for The Ice Schooner and the Corum series. She favoured me with a look that was compounded of equal parts disdain and pity. “Ah yes,” she said. “The commercial stuff.”

2 thoughts on “Two Science Fiction Histories”

  1. Ah, I have several comments here.

    On drinking:
    I recently heard a stand up comic say you can tell the age range of your audience by asking, “Would you willingly drink as much alcohol as you’ve ever drank in a night, plus one drink?” And then look at the degrees of flinching go through said audience.
    I wouldn’t willingly do anywhere in the top ten nights, personally. (I had a nefarious youth.)

    I flinched.

    Mr. Moorcock. I’ve read his body of work through the late 80’s. Though a lot of it was more depressing than even Saberhagen’s work. (One of the few authors whose work tends to be grimmer.)

    And on the subject of Saberhagen…
    A physics question I’ve been wanting to ask you for years now, what with your more than nodding aquaintance with the subject.
    If one finds themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of having to do combat with one of Saberhagen’s larger Berserker units, (Squat, double crenelated black cylinders 50 miles by 50 miles with their two mile thick armor belts of nickle-iron) do you engineer your nuclear warheads toward the gamma range or do you go for a heavy neutron flux?

    To me it seems a large 30 to 50 megaton neuron bomb in a vacuum would transmut a lot of the Berserker’s stuff into “other stuff”. Though a gamma emitter in those ranges would probably penetrate a lot deeper to frag more of the electronics.

    (When I asked, the good people at the “other site” once did all the math for the series’ weapon of choice against large Berserker units, the C+ cannon which fires a one ton lead slug at superluminal speeds.
    Since faster than light is “undefined” the physicists there went with 99.9 percent C, plus a homogenous 50 mile across nickle-iron target sphere. The projectile had enough residual energy to make a decent sized fireball on the far side of said target sphere. several tens of megajoules if I recall correctly)

  2. Hi Don:
    I find I have nothing to contribute to your Berserker musings, beyond pointing out that you can get however much energy you want into a projectile while staying below the speed of light—just ramping up beyond 99.9% of lightspeed, will steadily increase the “relativistic mass” of your projectile (to use a now-deprecated term), thereby packing in more kinetic energy than the simple increase in velocity would suggest.

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