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.