FROM THE COMMENTS: “I’ve owned that book for 5 weeks and haven’t read a word of the text yet!”

Saturday , 18, March 2017 49 Comments

John E. Boyle writes in with this astonishing anecdotal evidence for A. Merritt’s enduring appeal:

Merritt’s Magic

I’d like to give you an example of just how good A. Merritt was. I read the Ship of Ishtar years ago, and then loaned out the paperback to someone, who either moved or loaned it to someone else, and it was gone. This just happens with books, sometimes.

Then Jeffro began this series, and the old magic of this book cast its spell on me again. I decided to buy a copy the next time I saw it in paperback. That decision became more immediate when I learned of the role Damon Knight and James Blish had in wrecking Merritt’s reputation, and I went on Amazon to buy a copy.

I lucked out; I managed to snag a copy of the memorial edition put out by Borden, illustrated by Virgil Finlay, autographed by Finlay himself (one of Merritt’s favorite artists). That copy arrived on 2/11/17, and I gave it to my mother to read (being Mater Familias has its perks). She loved it, but I wasn’t home when she finished, so one of my brothers grabbed it; he liked it, his wife liked it, then a sister got it and then another sister…

I’ve owned that book for 5 weeks and haven’t read a word of the text yet! This is almost as bad the those Rachel Griffin books by that Lamplighter woman. Four generations of the girls in my family are reading those books and I haven’t been able to finish even one of them. It just isn’t fair.

Oh, and that autograph by Finlay?

“In Memory of A. Merritt, The Lord of Fantasy, Virgil Finlay.”

Meanwhile, Karl Gallagher weighs in on the continuing Pulp vs. Campbellian SF debate with… a question:

So, speaking as someone who reads hard SF, writes hard SF, speaks on panels on cons about hard SF, where are you finding this “Hard SF is the only true SF” propaganda?

You know, they say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but this one really should be embarrassing at this point.

  • “Hard SF is the only true SF” is so ubiquitous, it doesn’t even register as an opinion. Hard SF is the de facto definition of science fiction today.
  • “Hard SF is the only true SF” is the tacit assumption of Vox Day’s “Blue vs. Pink SF” dichotomy.
  • When you see someone invoke science fiction history by skipping from Verne and Wells directly to Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, you’re seeing someone insinuate that “Hard SF is the only true SF”.
  • When you see someone claim that science fiction is a ghetto, a sausage fest boys club that is hostile to women, you’re seeing someone insinuate that “Hard SF is the only true SF”.
  • When people invoke “the golden age of science fiction” they are (generally unconsciously) pushing outright propaganda that asserts that “Hard SF is the only true SF”.

I really have to salute David Brin on this because he at least acknowledges he’s taking a side in an ongoing debate. But to act like no one is out there pushing a party line of “Hard SF is the only true SF” is just plain dumb. After all, A. Merritt didn’t just quietly lapse into obscurity due to changes in taste, fashion, and impersonal historical forces. He had a lot of “help” from people that were all too willing to put their thumb on the scales within the greater science fiction marketplace.

49 Comments
  • deuce says:

    The name says it all. Calling it “hard” is a value judgement, an atribution of quality. If ALL they were trying to do, as they assert, is “describe” it, they would simply call it “Tech SF” or something similar. They don’t and they know why. The very name asserts superiority. Plus, “The Club of Tech SF Buds” just doesn’t have the same ring as “The Club of Hard SF Buds.”

  • Once you have listed the ungoodthink thoughts, and evenproscibed certain words to use to describe reality (as a precursor to telling a man who uses them what he actually, secretly means when he used them, albeit unconsciously) your argument stops being an argument, and you start trying to act as thought police.

    I am as much in favor pf rescuing A Merrit from obscurity as anyone, and dislike Damon Knight’s attempt to act as an amateur Grand Inquisitor of SFnal purity; but not to erect another arbiter of purity in his place. So, my your leave, I will continue to speak and think as I see fit, and I will continue to write hard SF when and as I see fit.

    And the Golden Age of Campbell will remain the Golden Age, thank you. We do not need to tear down A.E. Van Vogt in order to lift up Edgar Rice Burroughs, or deflate Robert Heinlein in order to magnify E.E. Doc Smith.

    There are two ways for a drunk to fall off a horse, after all. To avoid the danger of falling off to the one side, he overcompensates,and leans too far to the other.

    • Jeffro says:

      My opinion on the term “Golden Age of Science Fiction” does not constitute an editorial policy.

      Feel free use it, defend it, endorse it, and/or write rave reviews of Campbellian SF that you genuinely enjoy. Here or anywhere else for that matter. It doesn’t bother me one way or the other.

      • LastRedoubt says:

        It’s worth noting that Heinlein well and truly loved the Mars books by Burroughs, and E. E. Doc Smith

  • Nathan says:

    In reading through the Resnick/Malzberg dialogues, at least in the 1990s and the 2000s, science fiction was trending harder. Yet I’m also seeing slippage in the term. Hard SF used to be the scientific-marvelous, where one particular idea is examined and then the consequences are explored straight into the unknown. Now, it appears to be tech-SF, little more than rules or setting crunch with practically no exploration of the unknown. And that rules crunch hard SF ideal has gone into fantasy as well, with Brandon Sanderson being the best-selling example.

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      “Crunch” is a good, neutral term to use here. It has to do with how many rules are applied and how technical they get, no matter how much punching or adventuring or politicking is going on around it. I recommend we focus more on crunchiness and its uses/abuses than slashing at shadows when we really don’t have to.

  • deuce says:

    I have no problem with Tech SF. I love STARSHIP TROOPERS. Same goes for the Tech SF works of Poul Anderson, Pournelle, Cherryh, Drake etc. Rod Walker and Mr. Wright are doing good work. I’m certainly not saying that it shouldn’t be written or read. Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors. Period. I treasure all of his Tech SF fiction. So let’s not strawman things here and say that we’re trying to memory-hole or outlaw Tech SF. That’s not what is going on.

    If someone is said to be “soft on crime”, is that a compliment? If someone takes a “soft line” on an issue, is that a compliment? In a military unit, do the “softies” or the “hard guys” have more respect? The very name implies that “Hard” SF is “REAL” SF. If someone — especially a guy — unfamiliar with the field or nomenclature was offered the choice to read “Hard” SF or “Semi-Hard” SF, which do you think he would choose, just from the name?

    When that label was applied, and for all the years to the present day — whether consciously or unconsciously — it has set itself up as the SUPERIOR brand of SF. The Platonic ideal all SF authors should strive for. It’s not. It’s just another category of SF. Definitely not “better” than the other categories, despite the name. “Non-Hard” SF — see how lame that name sounds? — is just as worthwhile. Tech SF needs to get over itself.

    • David VanDyke says:

      I’d suggest Tech SF is very different from Hard SF. Hard SF sticks closely to known science and eschews tech so high that it seems like magic. Tech SF, I would say, uses all sorts of “tech as magic” Star Trek-like handwaving. I’m sure there’s overlap, as with anything, but that seems like a broad division. For example, I don’t write hard SF because it’s confining to me. I do, however, try not to violate reality with my high-tech. That’s more about good writing than good science–don’t blow the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

      • Rod Walker says:

        Rod Walker read somewhere that writers should aspire not to realism but verisimilitude.

        Like, it is inherently unrealistic to have a story with hyperdrives or magic powers, but it is the writer’s job not to make it realistic but to make a story with fantastical elements *feel* like it could be really happening as the reader reads it.

  • deuce says:

    I forgot to list Herbert and Neil Stephenson. I don’t mind some of Spraguey’s Tech SF. Certainly beeter than his attempts at Conan pastiches. I’ve yet to read Liu, but he sounds good.

    Wow. What a Tech SF-hating bastard I am! Throw all that Tech SF on the bonfire!

  • Anthony says:

    If hard SF was the De Facto definition of sci-fi today,the Hunger Games, Divergent, Jurassic Park, the Mazerunner, and Firefly would all not be considered sci-fi.

    But they are. That comment is simply not true. Pulp works fell down the memory hole, yes. Maybe that was Campbell. I don’t know. I’m not a historian.

    Soft sci-fi did not. Vox’ s blue vs. Pink definition was actually very broad initially; It was more about pink SF than blue SF. Distinguishing further between red and blue happened later.

    Call it what you want; hardness as a term makes sense to me for a variety of reasons. But “pulp works fell down the memory hole” is a different claim than “Hard SF is the only real SF”.

    • Nathan says:

      I could follow the argument with Hunger Games, Firefly, etc.., but I don’t understand Jurassic Park not being hard SF.

      • Anthony says:

        I always figured the science-y explanations were just excuses to for cool dinosaur fights.

        But if you’d prefer to use a different example, how about just “Star Wars”, generally.

        Sure, it’s a throwback to pulp works – but it IS considered sci-fi.

        • Nathan says:

          Jurassic Park is textbook hard SF and classic scientific-marvelous even though science and computing have marched on from the assumptions of that time.

          I’d also chuck Star Wars and Firefly from the conversation as visual works, not print. Visual sci-fi has never had a close acquaintance with scientific accuracy. The claims any of us have been making have been about the print medium and print alone. But the arguments that continue to this day about whether Star Wars is science fiction or some other genre don’t help the argument.

          Which leaves the Y.A. works you mentioned. It’s interesting that those works got pushed into a completely different category from science fiction on an arbitrary basis. Even Jurassic Park was shelved as a thriller instead of SF.

          • Anthony says:

            Well, I’m making a very general point here – that what people consider SF doesn’t just include hard SF.

            I consider the big problem with modern SF the loss of the superversive from fiction. Nick Cole has a post-apocalyptic sci-fi trilogy. It has one major romance; it takes up less than half of the book it’s in and the love interest dies before the work is finished. It’s not pulp in any sense of the word.

            And yet, after I read it, I couldn’t help but think that if all sci-fi was like Nick Cole’s, sci-fi could be saved.

            It’s not hard SF. It’s not soft SF. It’s superversive SF.

            The loss of pulp from SF was a tragedy. I’m not disputing that. Bring back great adventure fiction!

            But more importantly, bring back superversive fiction. The rest falls into place after that.

            That’s why I’m part of superversive sci-fi. I think the issues we’re attempting to tackle transcend pulp vs. Campbellian arguments

          • Nathan says:

            I consider Campbell as the point when the superversive left science fiction. To Campbell’s credit, he later tried to slam the brakes on the despair train, but others took up the subversive banner. It was at that point when American science fiction lurched away from the genre assumptions common to World SF, which are closer to the pulps than to Campbell.

            It is not that hard SF is inherently bad, but that it was the vehicle of a subversive clique who set the standards for American print SF, even though that influence is slipping. Part of that slippage is through the popularity of softer works in the genre’s margins, part of it is through the influence visual SF which has always lagged behind print in theme and idea, and part of it is due to exposure to European and Japanese SF.

          • NARoberts says:

            Well if it isn’t inherently bad, why all the bashing here?

          • Nathan says:

            Ask Jeffro and Daddy Warpig. My own complaint is with Campbell, the Futurians, and their cliques, who used hard SF to run out anyone who didn’t agree with their ideas.

      • Anthony says:

        Or, for that matter, the classic “A Wrinkle in Time”, soon to be a movie. Squishy soft, incredibly popular, and…sci-fi.

        • Nathan says:

          Considering that sci-fi has often been used as a derogatory term within the genre for things that only resemble science fiction without being science fiction, alongside space opera and space western, may I ask in what sense are you using the label sci-fi in this conversation?

          • Anthony says:

            I have never heard sci-fi used in such a way before. It’s just shorthand for science fiction as far as I’ve ever heard it used. I call “The Martian” sci-fi and I call “A Princess of Mars” sci-fi. Or SF. It’s just a quicker way to write out science fiction.

          • Nathan says:

            I thought so, but I both wanted to make sure, and also wanted to set up a point that there has been a tendency to bin softer stories into separate genres from science fiction.

          • jic says:

            “I have never heard sci-fi used in such a way before. It’s just shorthand for science fiction as far as I’ve ever heard it used.”

            I’m genuinely surprised that you’ve never met the kind of science fiction snob (at least on-line, if not in real life) who’s triggered by the term sci-fi. One of their favorite things is to pronounce it ‘skiffy’, to ram home the idea that anybody who says sci-fi isn’t a *real* science fiction fan.

            And yes, these people tend to be exactly as much fun to be around as you would imagine.

        • Dan Wolfgang says:

          The users of 4chan’s /lit/erature board call A Wrinkle in Time “Science Fantasy.”

          http://i.imgur.com/gNTrDmc.jpg

          • Anthony says:

            Maybe it is, but so what? It’s certainly not if we use the pulp revolution definition of sci-fi.

      • Anthony says:

        Wait, one more: “Dune”.

        • David VanDyke says:

          Rather like Star Wars, Dune is fantasy in sci-fi clothing, (using today’s definitions). Of course, in the past, SFF was more integrated and seamless.

          • Anthony says:

            Not the point. The point is that both works are considered sci-fi in the popular usage of the term. The fact that they’re really fantasies in sci-fi clothing actually HELPS my point, not hurts it.

            Just because pulp has been unfairly thrown down the memory hole does not mean that only hard sci-fi is considered real sci-fi. It means that pulp has been thrown down the memory hole – that’s it.

          • jic says:

            I wouldn’t say that’s a fair assessment of *Dune*, which really doesn’t contain any fantasy elements.

      • deuce says:

        Waitaminnit. Campbell signed off on DUNE. Are you saying it’s not “Hard” SF? You’re throwing JWC on the trash heap as well? You Hard SF Buds do like to eat your own.

        • Anthony says:

          I am utterly confused by this comment. It has nothing to do with what I said in the slightest, and seems to indicate that you don’t get my point at all.

        • deuce says:

          You just tossed DUNE out there as an example of “Soft” SF. JWC printed it in Analog. Are you saying Campbell didn’t know “Hard” SF when he saw it? He was the editor. I’ve read letters from him to Herbert. Where does DUNE become “Soft” SF?

          While we’re at it, are Asimov’s “Robot” stories “Hard” or not? There’s a lot of crap science and hand-waving in there. Same for the “Foundation” books. Do they go on the “Soft” bonfire?

          • Anthony says:

            You just tossed DUNE out there as an example of “Soft” SF. JWC printed it in Analog. Are you saying Campbell didn’t know “Hard” SF when he saw it? He was the editor.

            HuH? I never said Campbell only published hard SF. You just did. I don’t care who published it.

            While we’re at it, are Asimov’s “Robot” stories “Hard” or not? There’s a lot of crap science and hand-waving in there. Same for the “Foundation” books. Do they go on the “Soft” bonfire?

            What bonfire? You’re arguing explicitly against points I never made. I don’t think soft sci-fi is inferior…but nobody actually does, or Star Wars wouldn’t be considered sci-fi.

            Except it is.

            The real problem is that pulp works were thrown down the memory hole. It’s not that hard SF is considered the only real SF. That’s just not true.

          • Anthony says:

            My suggestion: Stick to the things I’m saying and the points I’m actually making, not the points you think I’m driving towards or things you’ve heard other people say.

        • deuce says:

          Anthony: “My suggestion: Stick to the things I’m saying and the points I’m actually making, not the points you think I’m driving towards or things you’ve heard other people say.”

          Thanks for the advice! Fair enough. Here’s what you said and the point you actually made:

          “The point is that [Star Wars and Dune] are considered sci-fi in the popular usage of the term. The fact that they’re really fantasies in sci-fi clothing actually HELPS my point, not hurts it.”

          Right there you disbarred Dune and Star Wars from being “real” SF. Instead, they’re somehow “fantasies”. What better demonstration of the Buds of Hard SF philosophy can there be? You toss countless works of SF out of the genre and expect no pushback. Your little subgenre of SF is no better than that of any of the other (sub)categories. You definitely made a point, but I’m not sure it was the one you meant to make

          Considering many of the examples we have of “Hard” SF, I wouldn’t say the category as a whole is particularly superversive, either. As Nathan points out, the rise of the doctrine that “hard” SF is the “real” SF also saw a dramatic rise of subversion in SF.

          • Anthony says:

            Right there you disbarred Dune and Star Wars from being “real” SF. Instead, they’re somehow “fantasies”

            Here’s the thing though: I don’t care.. Call them what you want. I actually originally referred to both as SF. I don’t think they’re inferior it “Real” SF. I don’t consider hard SF “Real” SF. You seem to think I do. I don’t.

            You toss countless works of SF out of the genre and expect no pushback.

            Call them jiggery-pokery if you want. I’m not making a value judgment.

            Considering many of the examples we have of “Hard” SF, I wouldn’t say the category as a whole is particularly superversive, either.

            The category is what you make of it. Sure, the early pioneers happened not to be superversive, hence you won’t find superversion among the early works of hard SF. But this is changing. “The Martian” has a strong superversive streak. John C. Wright is, of course, VERY superversive. “Interstellar” is one of the most superversive movies of all time.

            You seem to think that by calling a certain work one genre or another I’m also calling it inferior or superior. I’m doing no such thing; in fact, from what I can see at least in this particular discussion – as John pointed out earlier – you all seem to assume we’re doing that without actually asking us.

            Call “Star Wars” SF. Call it fantasy. The point is that it was made, and it’s superior to quite a lot of hard SF stuff. And I have no problem with that.

        • Eugine Nier says:

          I believe he’s merely applying Warpig’s apparent definition.

  • B&N says:

    “My suggestion: Stick to the things I’m saying and the points I’m actually making, not the points you think I’m driving towards or things you’ve heard other people say.”

    Jesus, we’re not saints, have a little compassion.

  • “Hard SF is the de facto definition of science fiction today.”

    Did you write that in 1951? Because it’s sure as heck not true in 2017. Look at what’s being sold and discussed. Various flavors of message fic, dystopia, quest fantasy, paranormal romance, mil-SF shoot ’em ups, space opera, and alternate history are all outdoing hard SF. Hard SF is a minority of the field. A proud one, yes, and we can be annoyingly arrogant. But there’s no illusions we’re in charge. It’s just one segment of a large field.

    Now in 1951 you’d have a case for the Hard SF folks running wild. But today you sound like someone showing up at boot camp wanting to fight the Germans. The DI will explain that you’re a few decades behind the times.

    • Nathan says:

      Except sales is the wrong metric to consider. Even in the heyday of Campbell, softer SF massively outsold hard SF. Campbell’s Astounding averaged 50,000 sales/month while the far softer Amazing averaged 200,000/month, a circulation not seen since. Yet we describe science fiction in terms of Campbell and not Palmer because Campbell’s science fiction was more influential, despite being outsold 4:1 by just one of his competitors.

      It is the influence of hard SF that lasts. When debates rage over whether Star Wars is science fiction or something else, when new genres are created to describe soft SF that’s too popular to be ignored, when Babylon 5 gets praised for its scientific accuracy in space combat, when critics complain for the dearth of hard SF and cheer the rise of the “planet books”* of the late 1990s, when Mundane SF gets championed, and when indie and YA science fiction thrive because the rules are less strict than normal SF, the influence of hard science fiction upon the genre is felt.

  • Cambias says:

    The “Hard SF is the not Only True SF” battle was waged and won by the New Wave writers before you were born, Mr. Johnson. It is becoming painfully close to a straw man.

    Right now hard SF is a struggling flame in a sea of steampunk romances, teenage vampires, slipstream fantasies, Extruded Fantasy Trilogy Products, and books about people shooting monsters. I only WISH it was the monolithic tyrant you’re making it out to be. Then I could read your essays on a laptop made of platinum and emeralds and have my servants bring me iced champagne while I compose my reply.

  • NARoberts says:

    This seems like a pointless argument.

    The only thing we are doing here is going around and around trying to decide whether we have to make a new name for hard SF.

    It is a waste of energy (and we already have a metric anyway: Pulp is red, hard is blue, everything else is pink-gray-goo).

    The Pulprev will lose its way if we make ourselves about de-legitimatizing or demonizing the “boys in blue.” Their work has value of its own. I thought we were trying to de-legitimatize the pink slime which has NO OBJECTIVE VALUE. The difference is night and day. The one has a subjective quality based on personal preference, the other is UGLY, FALSE, POORLY CRAFTED and by and large has no business being published in a real meritocracy.

    If what Cambias says is true, we may have isolated allies out there drowning in the pink sea. Let’s cast a line to any survivors who will sign articles with us against a common enemy, and welcome them aboard.

    This isn’t to contradict Jeffro’s post, his bullet points in particular are convincing. But his post is about contradicting the hipster holier-SF-than-thou people.

    So I do disagree with the pointless debate that always erupts when this topic is brought up. We want to provide a refutation to those who think they are so much better than us, but we’ll become as obsolete as we want to make them if we start to put on their airs.

    We want to establish ourselves based on the objective truth, not on a counter-narrative.

    • Jeffro says:

      I’m baffled by the amount of vehemence this post dredged up.

      I think some of it is due to the frame of reference. I’m not much concerned about the marketplace as it is. People are telling me that hard sf is marginal there.

      Within critical/commentary space, hard sf is where sff history begins and it yields the primary reference points for discussion. Even the people doing totally different stuff see themselves as rebels against the hard sff paradigm.

      The way those conversations play out it’s like sff from 1910 to 1940 or so just doesn’t exist. For fans of the works from that period, the Campbellian Revolution is like an atom bomb that destroyed the field.

      So what I’m saying looks very different depending on the context and the vantage point people assume to be primary. I think this is part of why the signal to noise ratio drops on these discussions and we start talking past each other.

      The critical/historical space is totally different from, say, the convention panel of hard sf writers doing their thing. That’s just how it is.

  • D.M. Ritzlin says:

    I’ve always thought of “hard” SF as “real” SF – which is why I’ve always hated SF. I can read and enjoy books like Vance’s Tschai series or Moorcock’s “The Twilight Man” because in my mind they’re “not really science fiction.”

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