FROM THE COMMENTS: “I’m Just Reporting What I’ve Seen”

Sunday , 12, March 2017 12 Comments

Daddy Warpig’s recent posts are generating a great deal of discussion. Well, discussion may not be quite the right word for it. As Alex has noted, it reads more like an all out brawl set to the fight music from season two of classic Star Trek. People are triggered. Cherished illusions are being mauled before their eyes. They’re not going to shed them without throwing a few rhetorical punches!

Here’s one such exchange that I think deserves highlighting.

Yuggoth: Written SF has always been a ghetto – it’s a far more open ghetto now than when I was growing up in the 60’s. The space race and Star Trek helped grow the audience enormously, and Star Wars had a huge impact and made it much more popular than it had been before. The very idea of Mainstream SF would have been unthinkable without those two factors. The mainstream stuff has been coopted and driven into navel-gazing or smug pastiches of great stuff done before, but there have always been writers producing thrilling yarns that also made you think. I don’t think we are likely to see it go back to the teeny cubbyhole it used to be.

Jasyn Jones: SF used to be a widely read genre, popular among all ages and sexes. The “teens and nerdy adults” ghetto came along fairly late in the game.

Jeffro: Congratulations. You have bought into the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” narrative hook, line, and sinker. You have no idea what sort of science fiction preceded it, how awesome it was, and how insanely popular the grandmasters of that period were.

Yuggoth: Sorry, no, I was reading Burroughs, Conan and Tolkein before I was out of elementary school, both original editions moldering in the backs of libraries as well as the then-new reissues. I read everything I could get my hands on. But I knew nobody outside of my own family who read SF on a regular basis, if at all. You may be correct in surmising that as a result of the Cambell effect on the field, I’m just reporting what I’ve seen over the 50+ years I’ve been reading SF.

jic: “I’m just reporting what I’ve seen over the 50+ years I’ve been reading SF.” — Except that’s just about the time that SF entered the ghetto. “Written SF has always been a ghetto” and ‘written SF has always been a ghetto *in my lifetime*’ aren’t the same thing.

Fifty plus years! That’s impressive. That would be since around 1970, the year when the leading man archetype was put down and the total ensqualmation of the field that we take for granted today was set in motion. The Golden Age narrative of John Campbell which has been uncritically accepted and repeated pretty well everywhere except in a few odd time capsules scattered around in the back of classic role-playing games…? This guy has been steeped in it his whole life and he assumes it’s just part of the natural order.

It isn’t.

That’s what we’re trying to tell him. The field was not always like he’s seen it. It used to be different. When I try to explain this to people extemporaneously, the word I continually reach for is “unimaginable.” Everything about this is unimaginable.

People are going to struggle with this, there’s no way around it! For people that honestly want to take a look at the evidence for themselves, rants and editorials just aren’t going to be the best place to start. And I really struggle with telling people, “oh just read my book and a good dozen authors you’ve never heard of, and then come back to me!” Gosh, that’s so tacky I just can’t do it.

There’s got to be a better way to get this ball rolling. And I think there is. If you’re looking for a shorter, less bombastic introduction to what we’re talking about here I would suggest this article on A. Merritt. (Thanks to “deuce” for pointing this out to me. Great find!) Seriously, just go read it. And if you don’t have time to read Ship of Ishtar or Dwellers in the Mirage, at least go read Merritt’s short stories “Through The Dragon Glass”, “The People of the Pit”, “Three Lines of Old French”, and “The Women of the Wood”.

This really is the only way you’re going to start to wrap your head around what we’re saying. If you won’t take our word for this stuff, then you’re just going to have to start reading things from outside the narrow and limited narrative frame that has been pounded into you for over five decades. Maybe then we could have something resembling an actual conversation on this topic.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    If the success of the argument relies on people doing work then they will never be convinced. It’s like presenting mathematical proofs to the math illiterate. Unless they do the work to learn the math they will never understand. Unless they read the real good old stuff they will never understand. Best you can do, is keep pushing people to read it and create it.

  • Nathan says:

    For a historical point of reference, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding in 1937, and started Unknown magazine in 1939. By 1940, the Campbellian Age/Revolution was in full swing. By 1950, with the rise of Galaxy and the Futurian revolt ramping up, Campbell’s time as the leading voice in SF was ending. While we’ve had a lot of older fans talking about the late 1950s and the 1960s, their memories are already 20 years downstream from Campbell’s changes to the genre.

  • David VanDyke says:

    I’ve been reading SFF for almost 50 years too (48 if my math is right and my recollection of reading my first SF book “Runaway Robot” by Lester Del Rey is accurate–though I watched Star Trek in the original broadcast even before that), but the difference in my experience is that I had little money to buy books, so I cruised libraries and yard sales, which in the late 60s still had a lot of stuff going back 30 or more years, and I was such a voracious reader I’d get anything that looked interesting.

    It was only around 1980, when I had some money and started actually trying to buy books in bookstores that I recognized the lack of what I craved in what was being published at the time. I wasn’t all that conscious of it, but I did know I tended to re-read the old stuff rather than pay to buy new stuff that was likely to disappoint me.

    • Nathan says:

      That truly is an interesting point, as, by 1980, the Campbell, Golden Age, and New Wave editors had been nearly completely replaced by the generation of editors that included Tom Doherty, David Hartwell, and Gardner Dozois. The criticisms of their work at the time was polite, but harsh. To put it in my own words, if pre-1970s SF was true SF, the new gen of editors were cargo cultists.

      It is also interesting that, prior to the rise of indie, many fans also chose to reread the old stuff for the same reasons. This was also about the same time when the generation of Doherty was retiring, allowing a new generation of editors to lead.

  • B&N says:

    It’s like in 1984.

    Yes, but can you remember BEFORE the revolution, old man. Think! Surely you can remember what it was like before today–when it was different.

    It has always been like this, sir.

    • Jeffro says:

      Other literary antecedents for this include “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and also the rediscover of the Law under Josiah.

      I always thought those were kind of outrageous stories, but this stuff really does happen.

  • Chris L says:

    I’ve also been reading SF for 50+ years, and yes it was a solitary thing back then. That’s because it took a certain type of mindset to get into blue SF. It wasn’t for everyone.

    Now a lot of people give Star Trek (full disclosure, I’m an old school Trekker) credit for making SF more popular, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Yes it gave license to geeks and nerds to fly the flag, but the general public just saw it as an interesting curiosity. The real hero of mainstreaming SF (of the non-literary kind) goes to Star Wars, a pulp SF movie if ever there was one.

    With Star Wars, folks who could care less about how much delta V you need to get to the Moon could just sit back and enjoy the ride. It is a more inviting universe. That is the power of pulp.

    I don’t think the argument being made is that blue SF is bad. I think the argument is that the people who pushed blue SF declared (now and forever) that it was the only SF worthy of the name. That the new wave critters used the same tactics against blue SF is poetic justice.

    • One critique I remember lobbing at ST:TMP was that it was “good science fiction, but a mediocre movie.” Ultimately it was kind of a blue mystery story, and mediocre as a movie because, well *boring,* in that it had very little two-fisted awesome (or two-phasered awesome) in it.

      Now, The Wrath of Khan . . .

      • And I missed my own point. Calling it “good SciFi,” was because I’d already absorbed the message that good sci fi could happen if it mostly made you think, rather than increase the heart rate. That it was, subconsciously, either-or here is the fundamental issue.

      • deuce says:

        Your anecdote, drawn from what was happening in real time, shows exactly how the Campbellian Revolution drove SF into a ghetto. I remember thinking almost exactly the same thing as you at the time. Thank Crom for TWoK.

  • Jay Barnson says:

    I think there’s an inherent problem making these arguments because there’s no common frame of reference. You can’t have a common frame of reference, in some ways, because the culture, technology, and size of the population have altered so dramatically since World War II. But it’d be nice to see numbers behind the claims. I know those numbers may not exist or may be so full of extenuating circumstances so as to be almost useless, but it’d be nice to have at least some concrete data as a foundation.

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