Gardner Dozois on Fantasy’s Extinction Event

Wednesday , 1, March 2017 43 Comments

A full appreciation of just what Campbellian style “Hard SF” really is all about is only possible with an understanding of when it happened and what cultural forces drove it into its temorary and artificial dominance. For that, the most concise summary you’re liable to find is in the preface to Gardner Dozois’s Modern Classics of Fantasy:

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most respectable literary figures– Dickens, Twain, Kipling, Doyle, Saki, Chesterton, Wells– had written fantasy in one form or another, if only ghost stories or “Gothic” stories, and a few, like Thorne Smith, James Branch Campbell, and Lord Dunsany, had even made something of a specialty of it. But as World War II loomed ever closer over the horizon, fantasy somehow began to fall into disrepute, increasingly being considered as unhip, “anti-modern,” non-progressive, socially irresponsible, even déclassé. By the sterile and unsmiling 1950s, very little fantasy was bring published in any form, and fantasy as a genre, as a separate publishing category, did not exist.

Although hardly welcomed to the bosom of the literary establishment with open arms, a grudging, condescending, partial exception was made for a specialized form of fantasy called science fiction, mostly on the grounds that it was “rationalistic”, “modern”, “progressive”, “predicted the future,” and so forth. In other words, SF had a didactic function, a social teaching function, that partially excused its excursions away from the “normal world” as it was very rigidly defined in the 1950s. While a faint whiff of raffishness remained, science fiction could be justified as a specialized form of children’s or Young Adult literature– as literature with training wheels on it, something that would teach the kids to be familiar with Science and Technology and to think progressively about The Future (much in the fashion of the famous “World of the Future” dioramas at the 1939 World’s Fair) until they were ready to put away childish things and turn to “real literature” about “the real world.” SF, then, although it did somewhat distastefully deal with things that were “not real,” could be tolerated grudgingly as a necessary evil for children and even some weak-minded adults. The idea that this “teaching function” justified the existence of SF was a note sounded over and over again, sometimes rather shrilly, in the genre magazines of the day. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for instance used to run endorsements on the back cover from “real people,” sober respectable adults like Clifton Fadiman and Steve Allen, assuring readers that it was okay, socially respectable (really!), to read SF– a strategy very similar to the current advertising campaign for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes that shows a succession of shamefaced adults, sometimes masked or in darkened rooms, admitting that they like to eat Frosted Flakes even though it’s a “kid’s cereal.”

Fantasy had no such justification, and even many of those who admitted (usually somewhat defensively) that they read science fiction would often draw the line at admitting that they read fantasy– which not only dealt, by definition, with things that “weren’t real,” but which had no mitigating didactic function.

In other words, Campbellian science fiction is the only form of fantasy that was allowed to really exist when progressivism was the dominant cultural force. It is the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes of science fiction, the edifying and prosocial alternative to Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, C. L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. It as billed as an innovation, but it really was no such thing. And it’s no accident that it is anti-heroic and anti-romance: it was engineered from the ground up for the express purpose of conditioning people to become the sort of “Men Without Chests” that C. S. Lewis wrote about in The Abolition of Man.

  • deuce says:

    There seems to be a philosophical divide between stories that start from the premise of, “Let me tell you about these cool gadgets and maybe I’ll give you an entertaining story” and “Let me tell you an entertaining story that has some gadgets.” The two types start from completely different places, except for the very small minority of people to whom cool gadgets are the PRIMARY thing in life.

    • David VanDyke says:

      I think, rather, that entertaining stories with cool gadgets went hand in hand, and the divide was and still is between “let me tell you a good story with maybe a moral or a dilemma in it to make you think” vs. “let me give you a lecture with maybe, but probably not, a decent story thrown in.”

      • Anthony says:

        I think, rather, that entertaining stories with cool gadgets went hand in hand, and the divide was and still is between “let me tell you a good story with maybe a moral or a dilemma in it to make you think” vs. “let me give you a lecture with maybe, but probably not, a decent story thrown in.”

        We’re talking about several different schools of literary thought here. While there is no doubt that is one of them, I’m once again going to be the Devil’s Advocate and say that if you’re talking about an Asimov or a Heinlein – the two quintessentual Campbellian writers, the subject of this post – it is grossly unfair to say that their work was made up of “lectures with maybe, but probably not, a decent story thrown in.”

        “I, Robot” and the robot novels are not lectures, they are puzzles, from a small scale like the simple logic puzzle of “Runaround” to a large scale like the murder mystery of “The Caves of Steel”.

        “Starship Troopers” is…well, actually, yeah, it is a lecture, just an entertaining one. Bad example.

        But it’s untrue to say that “The Puppet Masters”, “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”, or “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” are all mere lectures with a take-it-or-leave-it story.

        Even Clarke – perhaps the only Campbellian more reviled here than Asimov – was admired by no man other than C.S. Lewis, who was an avowed fan of “Childhood’s End”.

        Your characterization of Campbellian fiction – if that’s what you’re referring to – goes too far.

    • Joe F Keenan says:

      Deuce, As usual, you make good points! I would add the job of a storyteller is to tell a story. Fantasy seems constitutionally better suited to do that in comparison to SciFi. I believe that is because Fantasy sees the world through humane eyes while SciFi sees the world through materialist eyes, inhumane eyes. Fantasy is about human things, SciFi inhumane.There are exceptions of course, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. To my previous point, The Gods Themselves (Asimov in general) was one of the most depressing and inhumane books I ever read, Conan (and Howard in general) on the other hand was humane. I can’t see him thinking humans living isolated on the moon and separated forever from beauty of Earth as a positive thing.

  • Nathan says:

    “SF had a didactic function, a social teaching function, that partially excused its excursions away from the “normal world” as it was very rigidly defined in the 1950s”

    Gernsback, Campbell, and Pohl all thought this, where Verne, Burroughs, and Poe did not. As best as I can tell, this is a regional preference, championed by the New York science fiction clubs that later dominated American science fiction. Please note that each of the three editors mentioned had their own idea of how to do so, and that the ideas of technologist Campbell and Futurian Pohl were often at odds.

    Dozois is wrong about fantasy falling into poor repute pre-war. Campbell’s Unknown magazine was founded pre-WW2. Intended to bring about a similar revolution in fantasy as Astounding had in science fiction, it was only discontinued when the wartime paper shortage forced Campbell to choose between his children. Campbell chose Astounding, and thus science fiction, steering the prolific core of weird fiction away from fantasy.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      And the third of the ‘big three’ 1950s magazines was The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

      I suspect that Campbell really wanted to revive Unknown but Street & Smith did not want another fiction magazine. One could argue that all those psionics stories JWC published are just disguised magic, and, of course, in the Lord Darcy stories the magic is not even disguised.

    • deuce says:

      IMO, the best use of psionics ever was in Julian May’s “Pliocene Saga”. She was totally using psi as cover to tell, essentially, a fantasy. She used science, but all in the service of the story and totally in the tradition of Merritt’s science-fantasy. It sold very well. She is also a Robert E. Howard fan.

      Brian Aldiss, stick firmly up his fundament, sneered at it, saying it was typical of what a mere SF fan would write.

  • Andy says:

    It’s a seductive line to use. “You’re telling me I can read this nerd stuff and it’s actually important and meaningful? Wow, I feel smart!” I used to think like that, too, when I was younger but I grew out of it when I realized that the works that I remembered best and would happily revisit often seemed to be the ones that got shafted in favor of the critical darlings. And then I realized that these “irresponsible” things I liked often had deeper ideas, too, beneath their sheer entertainment value.

  • Nathan says:

    Dozois is of the generation of editors of which Malzberg said “to most contemporary science fiction editors “modern” science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties.” One finds in Dozois’ collection a strange gap in dates that supports the assertion. Worse still, Leiber, Anderson, and Wellman wrote considerable fantasy during these “dark years,” yet Dozois selects works from later times that match his thesis.

    Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 2979-2980). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.

    • Gaiseric says:

      @Nathan; ironically, it was… what; 1954 or so that The Lord of the Rings and more or less that same period that the Narnia books were all published?

      While I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to his assertion, it’s a pretty big elephant in the room to ignore literally the biggest things in the entire genre being published right smack in the middle of the period that you’re claiming nobody was publishing any.

    • deuce says:

      LotR didn’t become a true success until after Wollheim, who was already sparking things up with his Burroughs Boom, put out pirate editions.

      Narnia was considered strictly children’s fare.

      Merritt, who’d been dead since 1943, was the biggest-selling author in the (almost non-existent) fantasy category through the ’50s. In fact, he was called “The Lord of Fantasy” right up into the ’60s when things started to shift to JRRT.

      • Gaiseric says:

        Sure it did. It was immediately successful. Yes, it became much MORE successful starting in about 1964 or so, but it didn’t exactly languish in obscurity in rage meantime.

      • deuce says:

        You’re moving goalposts. Jeffro, Nathan and I are talking about the US market. In the US, Houghton Mifflin — according to every source — sold a LIMITED number of LotR hardcovers from the time of initial publication for that first decade. LotR was successful in the UK right off the bat, but it was no big deal in the US until the Ace paperbacks blew things wide open. If you read the US fanzines of the period, there’s very little talk about JRRT.

        • Gaiseric says:

          That may be. I’m not very familiar with the specific sales data of the specific printings—only with the general picture.

          • deuce says:

            The “general picture” is that only hardcover editions of LotR were sold in the US until the mid-’60s. Period. Those editions, per Tolkien’s contract with Houghton Mifflin, were sold in LIMITED quantities. There were ZERO paperback copies sold in the US because they didn’t exist until the Ace editions of the mid-60s. You might want to readjust your “general picture”, because it doesn’t square with the facts.

        • deuce says:

          Then you could read the well-researched Kirkus Reviews article I linked below. I posted it yesterday. Tolkien did not sell large numbers of LotR in the US until the mid-’60s. THE HOBBIT had sold well as a children’s book since the ’30s, but we haven’t been discussing children’s lit.

    • deuce says:

      Liptak, who tends to do good work, has the lowdown on Ace and JRRT here:

  • deuce says:

    In the interest of fairness and balance, here’s pulp scholar, Will Murray, talking about how Unknown and Astounding were intertwined:

    It looks as if Campbell did try hard to make a go of it with Unknown.

    • Nathan says:

      Look at all the names. Wollheim, Bok, van Vogt, Hubbard, Block, Heinlein, Asimov, Gold, de Camp, Dturgeon, del Rey, Kuttner, Moore, Leiber. How many of them stopped or slowed writing fantasy because Unknown folded, but Astouning was still buying science fiction?

      Raymond Chandler, Manly Wade Wellman, E. Hoffman Price, Jack Williamsom, Frederic Brown, Norvell Page. There’s some serious non-SF pulpsters writing in addition to the Campbell crowd above.

      The biggest what-if of SFF is what would have happened if Unknwon hadn’t folded.

    • deuce says:

      The problem is that the Unknown stories tended toward the “sensible” or cynical brand of fantasy exemplified by de Camp (Spraguey was in the Navy with Heinlein and Asimov, BTW). It didn’t really read like the old Lovecraft Circle/Merrittesque stuff from Weird Tales. Perhaps that might’ve changed.

      Weird Tales itself went under in that period. I still say there was some zeitgeist in that immediate postwar era that scorned fantasy. It wasn’t all top-down from Campbell and others. As with any widespread social phenomenon, the mood against the “silliness” and “danger” of fantasy had numerous wellsprings. Campbell certainly wasn’t guiltless and he was far from what I would call the “perfect fantasy editor”. I’ll take Gnaedinger anyday.

      • Nathan says:

        If you look among the roster of Unknown’s writers, you see a large number of the editors of the 1940s and 50s, in more than just SFF. I still lean more towards gatekeeper abuse than zeitgeist.

        “Ponderous, detached social forces, the apparent inevitability of history, can be seen in another context as coming from the cynical, short-term decisions of a small, powerful cabal; this is what Emma Rothschild wrote (of the auto industry, suburban sprawl, and the death of the cities) in Paradise Lost. Science fiction is an insular field; there has never been a point in its history in America where one powerfully placed editor could not, within a short time and for the short term, wreak change simply through using his power to buy one kind of story and reject another.”

        Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 2959-2963). Baen Books. Kindle Edition. 

      • deuce says:

        Shouldn’t all of that have helped out Weird Tales, though? I’m not arguing that JWC steered the SF ship in a certain direction, but that shouldn’t have hurt fantasy, exactly. Unknown died a full decade before WT. Authors left in the cold by JWC’s policies could’ve just gone there. If there was a market.

        • Nathan says:

          Some did. Wellman, for instance, continued to sell to Weird Tales throughout the 1940s. But what happened with Campbell was that he brought in an energetic and close-knit clique into fantasy, and, when he left, the clique followed. (Probably for the best, given Campbell’s attempts to take the mystery out of fantasy.)

        • Nathan says:

          Well, that, and Unknown wa still taking Farnsworth Wright’s cast-offs, like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser…

  • B&N says:

    Was fantasy a victim of Fredric Wertham’s comic book panic or did the anti-fantasy movement cause the comic book panic? Or were they both the product of the anti-obscenity movement?

    • Laurie says:

      I read somewhere that there was an actual movement to remove fairy tales and fantasy from libraries through the 50’s and 60’s (librarians are the worst censors of all). If it weren’t for Dover books, I would never have seen the old classics – Andrew Lang, Howard Pyle, L. Frank Baum, George MacDonald, all of that era.

      I’ve heard that this was done because, as said above, fantasy was considered junk literature. But I suspect there were other reasons. Victorians championed fantasy and fairy tales, because they promote spirituality, the idea that there’s more than the physical world, which is a natural support to religion – it’s no accident that some of the greatest fantasy writers were also great religious thinkers.

      Plus, older fantasy books demonstrated older, more classical values that clashed with newer progressive thinking.

      • B&N says:

        Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982),[1] was a case in which the United States Supreme Court split on the First Amendment issue of a local school boards removing library books from junior high schools and high schools. Four ruled that it was unconstitutional, four Justices concluded the contrary (with perhaps a few minor exceptions), and one Justice concluded that the Court need not decide the question.

      • B&N says:

        In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter.

      • deuce says:

        The Burroughs Boom of the ’60s was inadvertently launched by a school librarian who pulled a Tarzan novel from the shelves. She thought — only knowing the film version — that Tarzan and Jane were living in sin. The publicity got Don Wollheim to look into publishing Tarzan in paperback and the rest is history.

        • keith says:

          Puritans were ever prone to serving the interests of far leftists/communists, either by cluelessly pursuing the very same goals or by giving them useful amo against religion in general.

          • Gaiseric says:

            Puritans were the SOURCE of far leftism/communism. It’s the vice of that folkway—the drive towards embracing a totalitarianism in the pursuit of their utopian ideals.

            The fact that they eventually became divorced from the Christianity that they embraced during the early part of the 20th century was a rather superficial development, all things considered.

            That said; it’s pretty funny that they never seem to anticipate the Streisand effect, do they? By calling attention to something by trying to ban it, they always end up accomplishing the opposite of what they mean to.

        • Carrington Dixon says:

          The fact that Burroughs early work was falling onto the public domain did not hurt, either.

        • deuce says:

          Hardly any literary “boom” occurs because of just one factor. Timing is everything — I believe the zeitgeist that allowed Campbell to be so effective was fading — and those Ace books had great covers by Krenkel and Frazetta. A perfect storm that presaged and enabled the later Tolkien and REH booms.

      • deuce says:

        Because of the Nazi fascination with the occult, some people began using that against fantasy and horror. Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft both started being quietly associated with Nazism starting in the ’50s. Ironic, since REH was a vehement hater of Hitler and the Nazis.

        Of course, fairy tales and fantasy were essentially banned in the USSR and the KGB had been waging a long-term war of subversion within the Western intelligentsia and academia, but that had nothing to do with it. Nothing.

        • anonymous coward says:

          Of course, fairy tales and fantasy were essentially banned in the USSR

          That’s utterly and completely false, the USSR positively loved fairy tales of all sorts. They were viewed as a proper earthy proletarian form of literature compared to degenerate bourgeois modernist stuff.

          • keith says:

            I cannot think of any eastern block fantasy author from that era, nor imagine how traditional fairy tales would serve their purposes.
            There are SF authors I know of, all cynical or downright dystopian (Lem, Strugatskys…), but no fantasy authors.

          • deuce says:

            Such vehemence. I may have exxagerated slightly, especially in regard to chilkdren’s lit, but I was thinking of adult fantay/horror, primarily. Here’s what Infogalactic has to say:

            “Any sort of literature that dealt seriously with the supernatural, either horror, adult-oriented fantasy or magic realism, was unwelcomed by Soviet censors. Until the 1980s very few books in these genres were written, and even fewer were published, although earlier books, such as by Gogol, were not banned.”

            Even if fantasy lit in the USSR wasn’t outright banned, they often had a hypocritical approach to their subversion in the West. In many ways, the Soviets were less feminist and more racist — in practice — than the US of the same period, but they certainly encouraged their useful idiots here to squeal about it.

  • B&N says:

    “There are a number of reasons for real and substantial doubts as to the soundness of that hypothesis. (1) Scientific studies of juvenile delinquency demonstrate that those who get into trouble, and are the greatest concern of the advocates of censorship, are far less inclined to read than those who do not become delinquent. The delinquents are generally the adventurous type, who have little use for reading and other non-active entertainment. Thus, even assuming that reading sometimes has an adverse effect upon moral conduct, the effect is not likely to be substantial, for those who are susceptible seldom read. (2) Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, who are among the country’s leading authorities on the treatment and causes of juvenile delinquency, have recently published the results of a ten-year study of its causes. They exhaustively studied approximately 90 factors and influences that might lead to or explain juvenile delinquency, but the Gluecks gave no consideration to the type of reading material, if any, read by the delinquents. This is, of course, consistent with their finding that delinquents read very little. When those who know so much about the problem of delinquency among youth — the very group about whom the advocates of censorship are most concerned — conclude that what delinquents read has so little effect upon their conduct that it is not worth investigating in an exhaustive study of causes, there is good reason for serious doubt concerning the basic hypothesis on which obscenity censorship is defended.”
    -Justice Douglas, Roth v. U.S.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    And, Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy’s were deemed acceptable because she used an anthropological approach. That is, they could be viewed as essentially a very progressive form of science fiction.

    • deuce says:

      Le Guin was the harbinger of dire things to come. A woman raised on the lies of Boas and Mead, she was the perfect vector to infect what was now a rising and popular genre. The Earthsea books are just one subtle virtue signal after another.

      Mead the Fraud:

      • keith says:

        It is only with fourth book that series became full-on progressive preaching… Original trilogy of Earthsea books might have been tainted by her latter efforts, but they are enjoyable reads. They are feminine, very much so, but not annoyingly feminist.

        Interestingly enough, I only recently figured out that it is fashionable (among those I shall name “usual suspects”) to claim that Earthsea series became worthwhile only with fourth book, and that first three are worth “suffering” trough just to get to that point! For the longest time I believed it accepted opinion that fourth book was unnecessary, forced and a nosedive in quality.

      • deuce says:

        For the first three books, I’m thinking about Le Guin’s worldbuilding, but it’s not worth discussing at this point. She was the camel’s nose.

        For that type of fantasy, it’s a pity that Evangeline Walton wasn’t the model instead. A much better writer and none of the progressive baggage.

        • Kevyn Winkless says:

          I think the thing is that A Wizard of Earthsea in particular is an essentially anti-heroic story (not in the literary sense of antihero, but more opposite to hero) in which the action is driven not by Ged facing challenges and standing by his principle to overcome them, but the obverse: at various stages he’s faced by a challenge and chooses to compromise. *That* is how the peril is ratcheted up, and that’s in a sense what the Gebbeth represents. When he finally faces the Gebbeth is when he finally gains his power, and the end of the story becomes suddenly heroic again.

          The worldbuilding is interesting, but I think that in some ways it has been tainted by her social message retconning in recent years, which gives her work a bad taste in some mouths. I think minus her more recent gloss on “what it all means” the worldbuilding isn’t problematic at all.

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