Dawn of the Skeksis: Science Fiction’s Most Damaging Split

Thursday , 1, September 2016 28 Comments

We’ve spent a lot of time here delving into the ups and downs of several movements within science fiction and fantasy– the Campbellian Revolution, the New Wave, the tremendous changes that occurred in publishing in the late seventies, etc. We’ve broken stories here uncovering how both fandom and publishing are pretty well divorced from the pulp era today. Most things the casual reader has heard about the pulps are flat out wrong. Even just the news that fans in the seventies would have been familiar with a good seven decade’s worth of fantasy and science fiction classics generally comes as a shock to people.

As we’ve delved into the history of the field, the year 1980 seems to keep coming up as a major turning point. It’s a running theme, really. Just as one example of that: I have repeatedly hammered the point of how ideologically diverse fantasy and science fiction was in the seventies. Orson Scott Card says that all changed in the eighties. Here’s another: people writing negative reviews about books they used to love when they were kids? It’s almost like whole swaths of people have been actively conditioned to despise anything written before 1980!

Now, there really is something to this. It is very difficult to talk about this in mixed company, too. For one thing, there’s always people like Sheila Williams around that are quick to point out that times change. If she has a sufficiently large Greek Chorus on hand, every single observation about what’s happening gets dismissed to the point where nothing ever seems to have happened and there are practically no trends whatsoever. The subtext is always, “nothing to see here.”

I have to say, though, “times change” and “there are no trends” do not add up.

So where does that leave us? It means that something happened and it’s danged hard to talk about it. Let’s say we get all the boring people out of the room, pour a couple of beers, and take a stab at figuring this out. We still won’t get anywhere. Why not? Because the one thing you can’t do in these conversations is indicate that maybe someone somewhere maybe had a hand in bringing this about.

What happens if you veer into that territory? People get very uncomfortable very quickly. You’re not, uh, some kind of conspiracy theorist, are you?! It’s weird, too. The more documented evidence you have to back up your observations, the crazier you look. You might as well not even try. The conversation will not recover from otherwise intelligent people bending over backwards to make sure you know that they want nothing to do with this. Also, they will laugh at you!

Fortunately, there are a very few people who are capable of admitting that there is something to even talk about here and that have insights into some actual facts that explain it. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a great example of this. People really like these insider perspectives because they make sense and you can repeat it and it makes you sound really informed while at the same time doesn’t make you sound like some kind of tin foil hat type person.

I hate to say, it… but that still doesn’t really get us anywhere. It’s really only a step up from the Air Force’s weather balloon explanations for UFO sightings. Oh certainly, the changes in the overall nuts and bolts of how publishing was done was a huge deal, very different from the pulp age. But the idea that a major cultural shift could be precipitated merely as a function of such things is not really tenable. There’s sort of a working assumption here that there were no revolutions, just steady evolution. I don’t buy that, personally.

This whole swirl of confusion surrounding this topic is, oddly enough, only possible because of peoples’ almost universal ignorance of the pulp era. Here’s why: the pulps were basically the product of an unmistakably Christian culture. The Campbellian era saw science fiction rebranded as being the domain of serious-sounding atheist types that were looking to explore alternative sexualities. A transition that radical does not simply happen simply because “times change.”

Now I say that and most people are going to think, “hey, that’s what science fiction is.” That’s how complete the revolution was. The idea that the pulps could even be different from that is pretty well unthinkable. That’s why peoples’ minds are so consistently blown when they go back and take a look for themselves. You get two types of people weighing in on this topic today: the kind of person that thinks that science fiction basically started in the fifties and the kind of person that thinks it basically started in the seventies. The takeaway from all of this is the resignation that these transitions were inevitable– the product of some kind of crazy march of history that no one would dare stand in the way of. :yawn:

That’s precisely why discussing the history of science fiction and fantasy so hard. Because there was a culture war going on throughout the 20th century and it played out in the pages of these magazines and novels. Most importantly, this culture war continues to this day. Science fiction and fantasy therefore are at least as controversial as politics and religion. And as huge as the transition from the pulps to the Campbellian era was, the transition from the New Wave to the eighties was even bigger.

Now… Daddy Warpig and L. Jagi Lamplighter worked out that the sheer volume of science fiction and fantasy being put out starting right about then would necessarily have a huge effect on the firming up of the boundaries between the genres while exacerbating what I’ve been calling the Appendix N Generation Gap. That’s definitely a part of this. The way Jagi explains it, something happened that put an end to a conversation within science fiction and fantasy that had been going on for decades. And that’s huge, too. But there’s more.

To explain what played out there, I have to use an illustration from my favorite game. (And bear with me for a second here if you would.) Back in the eighties I played this tabletop game called Car Wars. When it first came out, it was insanely popular. This other game called Champions was popular, too. Aaron Allston– who would eventually pen a slew of Star Wars novels– he thought it would be great to make a supplement for both games in one book. Steve Jackson Games published it… and it was a disaster. Turns out the subset of people that would actually like both games was pretty small. Doh!

Nobody ever tried that sort of thing again, really. People got the message that individual games and game supplements should do just one thing well– sorta like a Unix command line utility, I guess. This is common sense today, but it wasn’t obvious in the early eighties! What’s not obvious, though, is that the cure can go way too far in the other direction!

Now Car Wars was a funky little game. It was sort of a board game, sort of a miniatures game, and sort of a role-playing game. It was all of them at once and didn’t really do any one of those things particular well. I loved it, though. For me it was perfect! But then Steve Jackson Games came out with a really popular role-playing game and they decided to make a separate line to focus on the Car Wars stuff that had to do with role-playing: GURPS Autoduel. You want to play a tabletop car combat game? Play Car Wars! You want to role-play in the Car Wars universe? Play GURPS!

I hated it. Before long, my favorite game was just a shadow of its former self. When an integral element of it was factored out, the whole package lost a lot of charm in the process, and neither branch could really do what made the original was so great at. It would have ruined gaming altogether for me if I hadn’t been able to pick up issues of Autoduel Quarterly that I had missed on Ebay….!

The interesting thing about all this is that this same sort of pattern played out in science fiction and fantasy fandom. The event that caused it? Why… the translation of science fiction and fantasy into tabletop games, of course! People have factored gaming out of the science fiction and fantasy discussion for so long, I don’t think they realize just how disruptive this really was.

But if you’re like me and you look at science fiction and fantasy after 1980 and wonder to yourself… where did the charm go? Where did the excitement go? Why doesn’t this stuff even register as being fantasy and science fiction the way the old stuff does…? Well hey, the sort of people that would have previously been working to make that sort of “spark”, they were busy designing games and developing campaign settings instead. You’re talking about a massive brain drain, really.

Who did that leave in charge of the “official” fantasy and science fiction scene…?

Well, given that gaming can trace its roots back to the pulp masters and these other people pretty well can’t, I’m inclined to call them… the Skeksis. Oh sure, Jerry Pournelle and Isaac Asimov were still writing on into the eighties. I get that. But those sorts of authors and editors were outnumbered by the sort of people that would think that science fiction didn’t get started until Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delaney hit the scene. The ideological pluralism that was the norm during the seventies was gone practically overnight. Publishing accelerated into the death spiral you see today with very few old style fans hanging around to put the breaks on it.

It sounds crazy, I know. But the advent of table-top role-playing games was the worst thing to ever happen to science fiction and fantasy. It really changed everything.

28 Comments
  • This post represents an interesting viewpoint that resonates with me. I am not sure that it explains everything, but I’m sure you’ve identified one element of what’s happened.

    One other element to consider is the move to computer gaming that drained even more brains, along with the advent of movies and TV as major sources of sci-fi content. Sci-fi fans could watch and play rather than read a lot of good adventure-based sci-fi (as most games are adventure-based, rather than being the literary explorations of social trends and issues a lot of modern sci-fi turned into) and so were diverted.

    So I’d say these two broad things, gaming and film/TV, sucked up most of the traditional-style sci-fi fans and a lot of the middle-ground-style ones, unconsciously abandoning the field of the written word to the liberal New York establishment and left-leaners like Tor. Only a few small/medium publishers continued to put out adventure/military/space opera in the classic mode, albeit improved by increased inclusiveness of more balanced casts of characters (all to the good, to reflect a changing fandom that includes more women and minorities, yet without falling off the horse the other way and turning the stories into social treatises).

    But then, ahhh, the digital revolution, which I am increasingly convinced has singlehandedly saved science fiction. Without self-publishing and social media, we wouldn’t see the enormous resurgence in traditional SF, for which fans are obviously hungering.

    The trick now may be to lure all those twitch gamers (as they age past competitiveness) and the Netflix binge-watchers (I admit to being one of the latter myself) back to reading good adventure SF on their Kindles.

    • Jeffro says:

      In the game blogging scene we are acutely aware of what MMORPGS did to the audience for tabletop rpgs. We can even break down how it impacted both decade’s worth of the biggest rpgs and what it did to peoples expectations as they encounter tabletop games after being “trained” by computer games. The size of the audiences relative to each other makes this topic unavoidable.

      I think the point with the seventies rpg designers that’s most pertinent is how Ken St. Andre described himself and Gary Gygax as being, in effect, “super fantasy fans.” A widespread translation of the super fan into the alpha gamer would have a significant impact on the sff scene.

      And yes, the changes in publishing is definitely what makes a pulp revolution possible right now. Talking to millienials and getting them hooked on Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber is key.

  • Misha Burnett says:

    I tend to blame Star Wars more than gaming, but I see your point. I saw it primarily as a shift in publishing to seeing both Science Fiction and gaming as genres for children. The money was going into works that, even if not specifically written for children, were vetted to be family friendly. That was bad for gaming and deadly for SF.

    • Jeffro says:

      Well, I blame Joanna Russ more than gaming.

      • GoldenPigsy says:

        Hey Jeffro,

        I would honestly love to hear you expand on that.

        I’m a millennial who was familiar with the pulps because I got hooked on Howard at 18, when a professor directed me to Joanna Russ’ novella “Souls” as an example of “thoughtful” science-fantasy (it isn’t, it’s science fiction in a period setting), and her “Adventures of Alyx” as “thoughtful” sword-and-sorcery.

        I found both to be onansitic — the ramblings of a bitter old lesbian writing for her own gratification. Almost like Delaney’s Hogg, although not as unreadable.

        Russ might well have killed my interest if I hadn’t already been reading Howard, Manly Wade Welman, Jack Vance, and Gene Wolfe.

        • Jeffro says:

          Okay, I’ve got more commentary on Russ here. Her being made the lead reviewer at the Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy was a big deal. It is precisely like the dozen games journalists coordinating a spate of “Gamers are Dead” articles. In sff’s case it’s much worse, because rather than imploding the old magazines continued on in a corrupted form for decades.

          But there’s more to it than even that. You’ve heard the phrase “politics is down stream of culture”, right? Well based on what I’m seeing, I’d argue that culture is downstream of criticism.

  • Jon M says:

    That’s some pretty profound analysis, and I can’t find fault with it, only expound upon it.

    For years we gamers who read (or readers who gamed if you prefer) did so at least in part as research for gaming. That was the whole point of the Appendix N list, after all. In the 1980s, there was a whole line of books expressly designed to tie reading and gaming together – the TSR tie-in novels that earned a deserved reputation as shovelware.

    I wonder if the digital revolution David mentions above isn’t being driven at least in part by a dearth of good, game-able long form fiction. Most of the good stuff that I’ve read lately (Cirsova, Nethereal, and most of Castalia House’s fiction wing) contains a wealth of material that would fit snugly inside a tabletop RPG. The pretentious Oprah-books-in-space books, on the other hand…not so much. Can you imagine getting anything game worth out of Cat Pictures or If You Were A Dinosar? If so, please stay away from my table.

    Sidenote: Aaron Allston is also the guy responsible for the D&D Rules Compendium.

    • Jeffro says:

      This post was of course an attempt put some of your observations in context. I’m necessarily going to want to inflate the position of tabletop gamers within the wider sff scene… but again, gamers are heirs to the sff canon while the sff establishment has basically repudiated it.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “But the advent of table-top role-playing games really was the worst thing to ever happen to science fiction and fantasy. It really changed everything.”

    This is a chicken or egg problem for me.

    I guess the counter can be put in a metaphor for European immigration to the US.

    Yes the US was great and I read the letters of my great grand Dad telling my great grand Ma how great America was. Opportunity, new life, freedom. It is all there in those letters

    But America was great in contrast to how horrible Europe was.

    So were my great grand parents drawn to America or were they running from Europe.

    Did the “spark” get drawn to tabletop or was it running from SFF?

    • Jeffro says:

      If you have Joanna Russ writing reviews that indicate that Heroic Fantasy is basically bad for you… then yeah, there will be an exodus of people willing to read and play game books way more than anything you’d see printed under that sort of editorial climate.

  • Tracy Coyle says:

    A voracious reader, I never was interested in the board games. but when the vision a story creates in your head appears – differently – on screen (TV or film), you will look differently upon the story. I stayed reading, but am a consumer of the screen. I am not a fan of the fantasy, LOTR being just about the exception.

    I’m with David, when you can see visions of the future on a screen, sitting and reading becomes passe – for many.

    • Jeffro says:

      Okay, no. Just no.

      I’m normally all for the “different strokes for different folks thing”, but not on this. The books are objectively better. The visions of the future on the screen today are so heavily politicized, they’re practically unwatchable.

  • Jon M says:

    “Because the one thing you can’t do in these conversations is indicate that maybe someone somewhere maybe had a hand in bringing this about.”

    There’s a full blown blog post lurking within that sentence. Today you can see people bragging about how they are trying to use their positions of influence to change media as a tool to change media. The recent Crash Override Network chat log leaks, the full throated admission by the Puppykickers that fans of pre-1980 style SF/F are not welcome, and a host of others demonstrate that people specifically set out to do just what Jeffro is talking about here.

    Yet it’s kooky conspiracy theorizing to suggest that people behind the scenes might have done back then what people on the center stage are doing right now? Anyone who claims as much is either hopelessly naïve or in on the scam.

    • Jeffro says:

      You could have any number of smoking guns and no one would care.

      That’s why I keep the focus on how the classics were (a) awesome and (b) different. Just getting people to admit that something happened is a chore given the reflexive “eh, times change” mentality.

      The culture war goes back at least to the thirties, though. Its main entry point then was literary criticism, oddly enough. See C. S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” for more on that.

      • JD Cowan says:

        “Men without chests” describes a lot of the more modern SFF, actually.

        The more I read Black Mask stories, Doc Savage, The Shadow, and older material, the more I realize just how little I have in common with the proper SFF crowd.

  • I like to blame the democratization of sci-fi on its present watered-down state. Star Wars and Star Trek created fans without a lot of interest beyond their specific interest. Fantasy got hit by D&D and tie-in books. Both events , I believe, helped lead the way to genres lifted out of their history, and creating an audience with no knowledge or interest in the past.

    I don’t know when I stopped reading new science fiction, but except for the occasional short story, I haven’t read a contemporary novel in several years. Every book that sounds interesting, and those are very few, also sounds like it’s swaddled in moralizing point-making. Sure, there was a lot of preaching about libertarian capitalism preaching during the Silver Age, but there was also a focus on adventure and story telling. I’m not seeing enough of that for my tastes these days.

    • Jeffro says:

      The thing I like most about role-playing games is the demand they put on the imagination. What I think my personal struggle to get a handle on them shows is that I was just not equipped to run them. Star Wars and Star Trek television and movie tropes just aren’t as useful at the table. The games make so much more sense in the context of their literary antecedants– and it’s interesting in and of itself just how different peoples’ concepts of what fantasy and science fiction even were back in the seventies.

      Given the number of mind blowing things I came across surveying the classics, I have to say that today’s fantasy and sci-fi culture amounts to being an attack on the imagination.

      • That all sounds right. Gaming at the very beginning, my friends and I had all read or were reading lots of the Appendix N stories or similar stuff. I like to think we had the tools to pull it off alright. It was watching what gaming turned into that led me to my current attitude. It got flattened and suddenly there were hipster elves, dwarves with mohawks everywhere, and more and more shelf space was dedicated to Forgotten Realms books and less and less to the classics and back catalogues.

    • Chris Nelson says:

      The funny thing about sci-fi in the movies and on the small screen is that people don’t have any great expectations of it and give it’s usual lower quality writing and plots a free pass. Many of the same individuals that slam pink and SJW sci-fi literature are forgiving those themes when the name “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” is attached to them.

      And games, especially those on the console and computer are a much better entertainment value in dollars per hour than either books or movies. So many distractions and entertainment options nowadays…

    • Alex says:

      I would like to full-throatedly recommend you check out Karl Gallagher’s Torchship. Though a novel and planned from the beginning as such, it feels like a fix-up of four or five hard SF pulp adventure stories. There are not a lot of contemporary books or writers I’d recommend, but this is absolutely one of them.

  • Fletcher, I highly recommend you pick up a CH novel. They are filled with adventure, by and large, and the storytelling is amazing. Specifically, I would recommend the works of John C. Wright to occupy your imagination.

  • deuce says:

    I’m with Fletch on the whole. I will say that I’ve been pointing out the deleterious effect of RPGs on fantasy lit since the ’80s. When Dragonlance hit big, I was like, this is neither fish nor fowl, “high” fantasy” nor “low” fantasy. It’s “middling fantasy” and it essentially makes a mashed together, unappetizing whole. Corporate fantasy. Star Wars and Russ certainly didn’t help things, either.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    I don’t buy it. John’s one of the truly great writers, and a gamer, both help the other.

    What I think is happening is that the soul of SFF is being sucked out.

    Originally, it was a small, poorly known field, and the gifted people that wrote in in were only those that loved it too much to not write it. If they were writing for money they would have written dramas, lawyer books or other popular fields at the time.

    Now, SFF is big-money, and hacks are swarming in to apply simple formulaic approaches. Years ago, these same people would be writing in other fields.

    This movement is coincident with the rise of FRP and MMO gaming because these are becoming popular at the same time that the SFF field has become main-stream.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *