You know the story. In the early days of science fiction, nobody really cared about getting the science right. But then John Campbell came along and changed all that, and a Golden Age ensued.
Science fiction authors were concerned with scientific accuracy even in the bad old days. And there were plenty of readers cruising the letter columns back then demanding more of it. Here is A. Merritt, an author read by millions, answering just such people in 1932:
Now and then I read a letter in your “Argonotes” expressing doubt as to the scientific accuracy of this or that in my stories, Now and then I read letters from people who quite simply and frankly say they don’t like them. With the latter, I haven’t the least quarrel. If one doesn’t like something, I can’t, for the life of me, see why they shouldn’t say so. As the old rhyme goes—“Some like their pudding hot, Some like it cold, Some like it in the pot, Nine days old.” The Lord knows everybody is entitled to pick his own pudding—prohibitionists to the contrary. I pick mine.
But I am a bit sensitive concerning criticisms of my scientific accuracy.
I write entirely to please myself, what pleases me, as I please and when I please. I honestly don’t take into consideration whether what I write will please others. That isn’t any “high hat.” I just can’t write any other way. I know that some will like what I’ve written. And I warm up to those unknown but sympathetic souls. I know they’re people I’d like to talk to, and who probably would get some enjoyment out of talking to me. As for the others, well, there are any number of entirely worthy folk who wouldn’t enjoy talking to me at all, and who would leave me quite cold if I met them. And they are probably just as interesting to others, or as interested in others, as those who like what I write would be in me or to me. But if I had to think, every sentence or idea—“Will they like this or won’t they?”—I couldn’t write anything. So I write what I like, and when I read that someone likes it, too, I say—“I’m damned glad.” And when they write they don’t, I say—“Well, why should you?” And that’s that.
But the question of accuracy is entirely different. There was some criticism of “The Snake Mother.” Some even called it a “fairy tale.” That was rather funny, because, for example, if all the novelists and playwrights who have rewritten Cinderella could be laid head to foot they would reach to the moon and back. And every so-called “realistic” story can be paralleled in plot by Grimm and Hans Andersen. However, there is not a single scientific statement in “The Snake Mother” that cannot be substantiated. If any one, even at this late date, desires to ask any question about it I will be glad to answer him. Or her.
And now, for the benefit of those who may question, or of my friends who may be questioned about the accuracy of the scientific framework of “The Dwellers in the Mirage,” I would like to say that is entirely sound.
The bulk of criticism, if any, will probably be directed at the idea of the Little People. I refer these critics to the Nineteenth Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, J. W. Powell, Director. In this will be found an exhaustive account of the legends of the Yun’wi Tsundi’, or dwarf race the Cherokees ran across when they came to the “New World” from Asia. It includes evidence of the Little People’s occupancy of certain parts of Tennessee into post-Civil War times. A very able investigator, Mr. James Mooney—see ibid.—is authority for this.
I particularly call the attention of those interested enough to read this report to the significance of the simple account of the visit of a hunting party of the Cherokees to a debased tribe of the Little People in Florida, and its remarkable resemblance to the story of Herodotus concerning the storks and the pygmies. Certainly this is not the kind of story the bigoted missionaries, or perhaps I should just say missionaries, would have told the Indians. It must, therefore, pre-date the arrival of the white plague in America.
As for the Kraken, I myself have seen its symbol carved high on the Andean peaks by hands thousands of years dead, and listened to Indians telling me of the Destroyer of Life.
As for the alternating personality theme, read Dr. J. Morton Prince’s “Dissociation of a Personality” and see how conservative I have been.
The Alaskan valley? None knows how startled I was when last October I read on the first page of the New York Times of the discovery of a tropical valley in that locality where summer reigned even when the outside temperature was forty degrees below zero!
Enough of explanations. I hope your readers will enjoy the tale. Those who do not will find plenty to enjoy in the other pages of your most excellent magazine.
How strange he writes!
I mean, I keep hearing about how this was a dark age when, as Andrew Liptak puts it, men made little room at the table for women in the field of science fiction. And yet A. Merritt writes as if these sticklers for scientific accuracy in his stories may well be female. Why would he do that if the scene was in some sort of overtly self-conscious He-man Women Haters Club™? (I do admit, his crude racism is rather shocking. Calling white people a plague?! Incredible! But you know, people are always saying things that folks from future eras are going to look back and just shake their heads at. You’ve got to expect some of that in any era.)
Anyway, if scientific accuracy wasn’t really all that new when John W. Campbell took charge of the field, what actually changed during the so-called “Golden Age”? That’s easy. The biggest change you’ll see in the transition from Stanley G. Weinbaum to the Campbellian era would be the nigh total eradication of classy dames in space as a result of some sort of weirdly puritanical spasm. It’s kind of creepy, really.
Consider this passage from A. E. Van Vogt’s Space Beagle stories:
In this all-masculine expedition, the problem of sex had been chemically solved by the inclusion of specific drugs in the general diet. That took away the physical need, but it was emotionally unsatisfying.
Say what you want about scientific accuracy, but this sort of thing is just not going to inspire people in droves to bang down the doors of CalTech in order to do the extremely tedious science it takes to actually get us to other worlds…!
The sorts of stories that accomplished that were different. They combined heroism, thrills, wonder, and romance– a heady concoction that appealed to a far broader audience than the more narrowly focused Campbellian science fiction. The appeal was so broad, there were even women like Francis Stevens, C. L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett that wanted to write it, female authors that were positively revered by the fans of their day. But that’s the thing. If you redefine science fiction to specifically exclude A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you end up with a weird narrative about the genre where Mary Shelly invented science fiction and then women were practically barred from writing until Ursula Le Guinn managed to break into the scene.