The 1970s Sci Fi Publishing Cargo Cult

Tuesday , 21, March 2017 11 Comments

1980 is often used as a dividing line between the time when a reader could pick up a rocketship book and expect science fiction and the time when he could pick up a rocketship book and get…something…else. The year comes up repeatedly, whether in comments on the Castalia House blog or through talk of Appendix N by Jeffro Johnson and others. Various explanations get thrown about as to the changes, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to the Thor Power Tools case. Often, the specter of New Wave is invoked, taking the blame for the loss in reader trust and diminished sales. But the 1970s were science fiction’s Crazy Years, and key trends get hidden in the unceasing march of deaths, cancellations, lawsuits, and blockbusters that reshaped the genre.

Prior to the 1970s, short fiction was the favored form of science fiction. Collected in magazine, these short stories were edited by a revolving door of writers turned editors, such as Campbell, Pohl, and Bova. With Campbell as a notable exception, these editors would return to writing afterwards. It also meant that the body of science fiction was building off of or reacting against a tradition of science fiction established during the pulps. Even as the actual pulps vanished, science fiction writers from Bester and Moorcock to Farmer and Zelazny continued to work with characters and ideas from the pulp age.

However, in the 1970s, short fiction was replaced by the novel as the dominant medium. Instead of the writers and magazine editors shifting over into the book editor slots, a new generation of editors took over that had:

“little reading background in science fiction prior to their assumption of their posts, none of them have ever written it. (The central editors of previous decades were all writers or people who had at least attempted to write in the field.) They have a scant background in the field and for many of them (again, not all) science fiction editing is a way station, an apprentice position on the way to editing something, anything, other than science fiction.” (1)

These were the editors of which as early as 1968 jokes were made that they thought the genre was invented by Harlan Ellison, a criticism that would continue to be made in 1981:

(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) (2)

Because of this, the book editors tended “to publish what looks like science fiction” as opposed to what was truly science fiction. And, since they were risk adverse, or, at the very least, fearful of making mistakes, there was a great narrowing of the field.

“Most science fiction editors seem mostly to seek the assurance that they are doing nothing wrong and since I cannot grant them this assurance I stay away from most of them.”  (3)

This shift in gatekeepers from fans and writers to ticket-punching careerists on their way to more desirable positions gutted science fiction of its pulp and Campbell traditions, a loss apparent to the old hands as early as 1981. By publishing what looked liked science fiction instead of the previous mainstream of science fiction, these editors were no different than the cargo cultists of World War 2. And the readers who were served imitation science fiction instead of the real deal left in droves.


  1. Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 2967-2970). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 2979-2980). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
  3. Samuel R. Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes of the Language of Science Fiction.
11 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    A simple change in editorial direction caused a seismic shift in the field of science fiction.

  • Tomas Diaz says:

    Were the links of Moorcock and Zelazny meant to go to Leiber and Kuttner respectively? Trying to figure out if this is a mistake or some sort of interesting commentary of juxtaposition.

    • Nathan says:

      The links are intentional. Moorcock’s work was influenced by Leiber even prior to their friendship, and Kuttner’s “The Dark World” is a strong influence on the Chronicles of Amber.

  • Steve says:

    As the critique of “modern” SF rolls on into the 1980’s are there any plans by any of the writers here to analyze and systematically critique Bruce Sterling’s Cheap Truth zines from the 80’s?

    I haven’t read them in damn near 20 years, but I remember them being thoroughly against “reactionary” SF. I remember being somewhat agreeable to some of the arguments, but yet disagreeing with the postmodernism for postmodernist sakes outlook. Neuromancer wasn’t that good, after all, and what did Sterling ever write that was notable?

    Would love to see any discussion on it seeing as I enjoy the articles and analysis of the various SF movements written so far here on the blog.

    • What did Bruce Sterling write that was notable? Well, just off the top of my head, “The Artificial Kid”, “Schizmatrix”, “Islands In The Net”, and “Zeitgeist”. Oh, and “The Difference Engine”, along with William Gibson.

      The influence of Gibson and Sterling (as well as other Cyberpunk writers like John Shirley, Michael Swanwick and Walter John Williams) has been hugely notable.

      The focus of the recent discussions of the history of Science Fiction has been focused on the 1950s and 1960s, but I don’t think that it would be far off the mark to say that Cyberpunk revitalized Science Fiction in the 1980s.

      You may not like the direction the movement took, but it is hard to overstate the influence that it had.

      • Misha Burnett says:

        Now that I think about it, after “The Empire Strikes Back” made me think that Sci Fi was kid stuff that I had outgrown, it was “Neuromancer” that convinced me that there might still be something in the genre for grownups.

      • icewater says:

        Eh, Neuromancer did nothing for me. But, to be fair, I’ve first read it rather late and cyberpunk was never my thing, so entire thing felt incredibly dated and unappealing to me.
        I never tried to pursue anything else by him after that.

        I might check Pirate Utopia, mostly because it is based around pretty fascinating and misunderstood historical figure (but, given what I heard about Sterling’s views, I have a feeling that said figure will be demonized and/or made fun of in his novel).

    • keith says:

      @Steve

      Neuromancer was written by Gibson. Or is it just that I’ve misread your construction?
      Not trying to be nitpicky, and there’s some humor in one notable thing you attributed to him being written by another author.

      I really can’t say anything about him. He is one of those genre lit figures I knew about for ages and yet never read anything they wrote.

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