The Atomic Age Narrative: What It’s All About

Sunday , 2, April 2017 28 Comments

Sam J. Lundwall’s (born 1941) Science Fiction: What It’s All About was an Ace paperback from 1971. Lundwall is a native of Sweden who had a few novels published in the U.S. by Donald Wollheim first at Ace and then at D.A.W. The book is presented as a sort of beginner’s guide of getting some idea of the genre. Donald Wollheim had an interest in foreign science fiction. He published it as an editor. In the introduction, he states he does not agree with everything Lundwall writes but he wanted to present something with a non-American perspective.

Sam Lundwall is very much in the Hugo Gernsback created American science fiction:

“When one speaks about the origins of modern science fiction, one should keep this American development in mind. Gernsback separated speculative fiction from mainstream literature, put the emphasis on the scientific aspects and endowed it with a designation not to different from the one already in use. Science fiction appeared.”

Lundwall discounts Edgar Rice Burroughs part in the making of science fiction. In face he does not like Burroughs at all:

He quotes a Rev. Henry Hardy Heins:

“ERB knew the difference between right and wrong and he spun his yarns so that there was never any doubt in his reader’s mind either.”

Lundwall responds:

“To me, this seems to be a pretty good explanation as to why Burroughs never should have seen print at all and why his books should be banned in every library ever frequented by people under the age of fifteen years. Perhaps the Rev. Heins thinks that the ‘the spilling of countless buckets of blood’ belongs to the ‘simple virtues’ of life. I don’t. I much prefer ‘dirty’ (and natural) sex to the senseless killing so exultantly praised by this Burroughs advocate. . .The ‘clean’ virtues listed by the Rev. Heins above are, however, common for all Heroic Fantasy heroes; they kill like maniacs, but they are clean (which probably means that all of them still are virgins; how they should be able to have clean consciences after what they have done, escapes me).”

Generally when someone is proposing the banning of books, you know they have an ideology and generally what portion of the spectrum they belong.  Lundwall has a problem with overtly masculine fiction. You have him making the case for inversion of what made science fiction popular to begin with.

He goes after Robert E. Howard and sword and sorcery fiction:

“sadistic tales of Robert E. Howard. . .There was a similar interest in heroes and mighty deeds in Hitler’s Germany. Richard Wagner’s Der Ring der Nibelungen, a heroic Sword & Sorcery fantasy of no mean qualities, was not the only work of its type popular at the time.”

He can’t resist the Nazi comparison.

“Usually, the Heroic Fantasy, or Sword & Sorcery, is so absurd that no one ever can take it seriously, which admittedly weakens some of the objections against it as to its over emphasis on violence. It is really no more improbable than the typical story of the broad-shouldered private eye who fights fifteen Russian agents single-handedly and shoots beautiful blondes in the belly. It’s just the setting that is different.”

“Howard created in his stories a never-never land called Hyboria, in which his gigantic and unbelievable sadistic hero Conan carried on like a devil, killing women, children and old bootmakers with the same merry spirit. . .Conan’s originality is not so great as to necessitate any deep analysis; it is basically the time honored formula all over again, but for anyone looking for good, clean murder, slaughter and sadism, this is a must.”

First, I don’t think Lundwall ever read any Robert E. Howard. Hyboria? No, it is the Hyborian Age. I somehow missed all killing of women and children in the stories.

Lundwall roles out the obligatory psychiatric diagnosis for wrong think. The Soviet Union used to put dissidents in psychiatric institutions. It is common recently for those of a certain ideological direction tol brand someone who disagrees with them as mentally unstable.

Lundwall has to get once last kick in:

“Outside the English-speaking countries, Heroic Fantasy fiction is quite scarce; in Scandinavia indeed almost non-existent, possibly due to the fact that the Eddas are read in school and any modern Heroic Fantasy must seem rather pale in comparison.”

If the Eddas are so much more extreme, why is not Lundwall condemning them? He then takes time to praise Tove Jansson’s “Moomin” tales. Jannson is a Finn but a Swedish speaker.

This hand wringing over violent tales is partially amusing. Lundwall displays a naivete about the real world. The threat of violence is protection. You would think a native of Sweden of that time would be especially sensitive to the threat of invasion by the Soviet Union. Violence is not some unnatural condition. Read Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. I think the most violent thing I ever saw was a fight between two tom cats when I was a kid. The image is still with me.

“Space Opera stories of the twenties and the thirties, which originally sprang directly from the pulp Wild West yarns, but still managed to turn out as something entirely new in pulp fiction Their world was the fairyland of super-science, and even if the heroes were molded in the time-honored knight and cowboy formula.”

“I am including the Space Opera branch of science fiction in this chapter, as being the direct descendent of the fantasy tale. It is really the same branch, only with some of the old symbols exchanged for new. . . They were crude stories, usually lacking even the simplest literary merits. . .Nevertheless, they conveyed a Sense-of-Wonder, and this to an extent that probably never has been surpassed. “

Space opera was the next step after the scientific romance or the sword and planet adventure. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912) predates most westerns. The first “western” novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian was published only in 1902. Zane Gray did not start until 1908 with westerns. Frederic Faust (aka “Max Brand”) did not write westerns until 1919.

Did the west play a part on Edgar Rice Burroughs? Yes, he spent time with the U.S. Army in Arizona in the 1890s. Keep in mind the last fight with Apaches was in 1918 and the last Apache raid was in 1924. The West, not westerns were an influence.

Lundwall mentions 1920s space opera but there was not that much of it. He is probably referring to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space, published in Amazing Stories (but written about a decade earlier) in Amazing Stories in 1928. J. Schlossel had six space opera stories in Weird Tales and Amazing Stories from 1925 to 1931. They generally read more like outlines for longer epics but there is nothing of the western detectable in influence. Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned” and its sequel “The Oath of Hul Jok” (both from Weird Tales) are also early space opera, albeit very different ones.

Then he goes on to turn on a dime:

“It might be a lot of rubbish, but I can’t resist liking it. . .The Space Opera regards the future with hope and a positive attitude. But as a contrast to the defeatist attitude of many recent works of science fiction, it certainly serves a purpose.”

Despite enthusiasm for space opera, he refers to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as “military propaganda.”

Has Lundwall ever heard of cognitive dissonance? Lundwall condemns those who look to the past for inspiration while praising those who look to the future for the same elements.

He makes some factual mistakes with H. P. Lovecraft.

“Lovecraft was the most diligent contributor to the U.S. fantasy magazine Weird Tales. . .Lovecraft also wrote a number of stories and articles gratis for the fan magazines (fanzines) that were published in sf fandom, taking up a substantial part of his time and leaving less time for more profitable writings, which might have been one of the reasons for the poverty in which he lived at the end of his life. . .Many of these stories are powerful, but they tend to be somewhat monotonous with time.”

I don’t know if I would call H. P. Lovecraft the most “diligent contributor” to Weird Tales. Lovecraft did not have a good relationship with editor Farnsworth Wright and was on the lookout for alternate markets. Seabury Quinn could be called the most diligent contributor to Weird Tales.

Lundwall calls Damon Knight “a living giant of the genre.” Interestingly, he was not completely sold on the science fiction “New Wave” movement of the 1960s, viewing it as negative in outlook. He is enthusiastic on the exploration of the “inner space” and psychology.

Science Fiction: What It’s All About is just not a good book for several reasons. Lundwall jumps around instead of creating a linear narrative. It is a bunch of pieces thrown together with his opinion laid overall. As I have pointed out, he is self-contradictory. The scholarship is shoddy. The comment on Conan and H.P. Lovecraft are false, therefore everything he writes is suspect.

He did manage to make one very clear observation:

“Without the science fiction pulps, we wound now have no organized sf fandom, no sf conventions, no fan magazines and pretty few sf writers. I doubt if there would be much American science fiction at all.”

The book is interesting in that it is something negative to engage. Sam Lundwall is a minor science fiction writer, giving credence to Lester del Rey’s comment on less successful writers being concerned with “art.”

Lundwall would have been around 30 when this book came out. It has all the arrogance of youth. It also has the air of attempted moral superiority  and virtue signalling associated with those of that age. His sex not violence comments are emblematic of that generation. Applied to science fiction, how has that worked out?

 

28 Comments
  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Thank you, sir! Your bravery does you credit!

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    Sex vs violence is easy to give ground on. Yeah, violence is bad and we shouldn’t expose ourselves to too much of it, there are lines of taste and delicacy, but porn addiction is a problem and gore addiction isn’t.

    I’ve got an article churning around about how Le Guin and similar authors solve sexual pathology by making everyone rut in orgies, and how similar that is to earlier SF authors handwaving physics.

    • There are orgies in Le Guin? Damn, I must have missed those stories. My goto guy for orgies has always been Heinlein.

    • Alex says:

      Eh… I’ve read a decent chunk of LeGuin, and all of her characters and societies feel very sexually repressed. The notion of letting go and giving into one’s desires seems to always be met with primal horror or revulsion or at least proves to be some kind of mistake, whether it’s some kind of inevitable betrayal or loss.

      Then again, I also haven’t read Coming of Age in Karhide, which always sounded to me from how it was described that LeGuin was writing erotic fan-fiction of her own writings…

  • caleb says:

    Regarding that ERB bit, one Edmund Wilson described The Lord of the Rings juvenile kitch unworthy of print precisely because of clear delineation between Good and Evil within the narrative. ‘Twas commonly used ammo when attacking Tolkien, right from the very beginning.

    Interestingly, this Lundwall character then goes to other extreme when attacking REH, he constructs false image of Conan as this evil, sadistic child-killer so that he can attack him from a moralistic high-ground.

    These creatures are all alike. Same arguments, same positions, same level of ignorance, same lack of consistency.

    • deuce says:

      You know what’s even weirder? Lundwall went on to translate and publish lots of REH and Lovecraft in Sweden. Just found that out from a very knowledgeable Swedish uber-fan. Cognitive dissonance.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “There was a similar interest in heroes and mighty deeds in Hitler’s Germany. Richard Wagner’s Der Ring der Nibelungen”

    WOW!

    According to that Spengler (Not Oswald but some guy using the name as an anon handle) article VD posted awhile back that compares Lord of the rings to Wagner’s “Ring”; Tolkien did not like what Wagner did with ye ol norse myths at all. Namely killing the Gods to usher in a new age of man.

    Tolkien being kind of a traditionalist I suppose.

    Conversely I read somewhere* that Tolkein “quite liked Conan”. (Nathan was that you?*)

    This is important I think. Conan in at least three stories is conscripted by the Gods to preserve civilization and fight those who would corrupt it. Conan is no Sigfried usurper of the Gods. This might be why Tolkien liked Conan.

    Also as King he set a policy of low taxes and no-war AND was all about free speech. Conan refused to harm the bard Rinaldo despite his sedition and despite Prospero recommending to have the bard fed to the vultures. In fact Conan even refuses to fight back in mortal combat with Rinaldo and only finally retaliates when Rinaldo stabs him.

    That does not sound like a nationalize industry invade Czechoslovakia and burn books Nazi to me.

    Note: There is a strain going on about keeping the politics out. Not here to ignite it into a raging cross blog war, but I would like to point out Howard with his Conan is chalk full of, if not politics, political philosophy. It is hard to avoid. Howard was not just writing for fun and cash. He had some real things to say with Conan and wrote them LARGE.

    • Andy says:

      IIRC, Howard in his correspondence was very specific about disliking Hitler and the Nazis. As he put it to Lovecraft, if the Nazis had come to power in the U.S., eccentric intellectuals like the two of them would have been among the first put before a firing squad.

      • john silence says:

        I assume that Howard’s private correspondences would have been available to this guy back when he was assembling his book?

        Not that it looks like in depth or honest work in any way, as Morgan says that bit about Conan makes it look like he barely even read the original stories.

        • Andy says:

          Yeah, good question. I’m not sure. Even if it wasn’t, though, I think using the “Hitler loved it” angle as a club is just bad form. Wasn’t that the whole premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream? I don’t know, I haven’t read that book.

    • T. Everett says:

      I don’t have the reference right at hand, but I believe the “Tolkien liked Conan” idea comes from an interview he had with de Camp in the 1960s or 70s. This might be me absorbing some of the Howard fandom’s anti-de Camp bias, but I got the impression that Tolkien was at least partially humoring him with his answer.

      • Morgan says:

        The Tolkien quote is from de Camp’s LITERARY SWORDSMEN AND SORCERERS. De Camp had sent Tolkien either SWORD & SORCERY or THE SPELL OF SEVEN. Tolkien is supposed to have said he “rather liked” the Conan story.

  • keith says:

    Another one that based his opinions solely on politics and on the hip writings of other guys from his circle, rather that forming them by reading works in question by himself?

    Going by this GR review, once he goes into detail about old JRR, it becomes obvious that he is every bit as “familiar” with his writing as he is with Howard’s…

    * He refers to The Lord of the Rings exclusively as “the trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring.” That takes a special kind of ignorance, even in the 70s.
    * Tolkien “is far from unique.” LotR is just a stereotypical fairytale.
    * Citing with approval the hilariously oxymoronic statement that Tolkien “is a most intolerant and conservative man, as the English are, in the end.” Nothing says tolerance like tarring an entire nation with intolerance!
    * “Galdalf [sic – GALDALF], the secure old father-figure, is always present somewhere.” Except of course that whole minor part in which he DIES AND LEAVES THEM ALL ON THEIR OWN.
    * “Sauron’s army of the living dead” – I’m sure he read the book and just meant to write Aragorn, the only commander of an actual living dead army.
    * Lundwall’s description of the Scouring of the Shire: “Frodo returns to his peaceful village, defeats the remainder of the revolting lower classes (aptly described as some kind of sub-human creatures) and later leaves for a place more fit for a gentleman.” Cue eye-rolling. Yes, defeating the lower class like Saruman (a wizard), Grima (a nobleman from Rohan), and Lotho (Frodo’s own cousin, presumably of the same class). Again, Tolkien’s no Marxist, so you shouldn’t have to make up idiotic exaggerations to criticize him on that front. But Lundwall does, and so I hate his stupid little book.
    * “It is a beautiful description of the upper class’s inability to face change, and the efforts of the same to fight evolution, although I am sure Tolkien never consciously meant it that way.” Let’s get this clear. Tolkien is smarter than you are. Tolkien’s books evince a thematic clarity which you’ve been criticizing this whole time, and yet you think that somehow he missed what those themes mean. Tolkien well knows he’s fighting for a world that no longer exists – primarily, a world in which the engines of progress and industrialization wouldn’t have killed most of his friends in World War I.

    • ScottatCastalia says:

      “Tolkien well knows he’s fighting for a world that no longer exists – primarily, a world in which the engines of progress and industrialization wouldn’t have killed most of his friends in World War I”.
      I’ve been busy with a few projects so I’m not far into this book but check out A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

  • ID says:

    “You would think a native of Sweden of that time would be especially sensitive to the threat of invasion by the Soviet Union.”

    Nah, Sweden has always been shielded against Russia by Finland. I doubt that the thought never even occured to him.

    • Morgan says:

      I spent some time in Russia. The Russians always spoke with great respect for the Finns. On the other hand, they used to tell me Ukrainian jokes.

  • icewater says:

    “If the Eddas are some more extreme, why is not Lundwall condemning them?”
    If I had to guess, I’d go with the “Eddas are enough to sour them on the whole concept”. Kinda like Asimov’s silly “best way to turn someone into atheist is to have him read the Bible”. He strikes one as the sort of guy who thinks in such a way, doesn’t he…
    But that would imply some consistency, and based on these excerpts he seems to be Cognitive Dissonance Central.

    And in any case, he happens to have chosen a culture that produced some gazillion heroic sagas throughout the centuries, so his argument there is kinda null. And if that aspect of their culture failed to realize itself trough fiction in the last century or so (and I have no bloody idea if it did or did not, for all I know 20th century Scandinavia might have produced a stream of historical novels heavy on ye olde action and adventure) it sure managed to do so trough their music.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Sweden in the 21rt century gave us the ultimate shield maiden action and adventure hero.

      “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

      Written by a communist about an edge grrrrl who is totally not raped by a middle eastern refugee and the author’s stand-in self male lead love interest is written out of the series by the third book

      The book was of course only published after the author’s death the money not going to his wiafu of 30 years cuz he never married her.

  • Objectively speaking, there was little violence in ERB. Think about the publishing milieu of 1911. In discussions, I tell people to go back and reread The Moon Maid. It’s tough, because Burroughs was in his antique narrative phase. As a child, you sympathize with Julian, as an adult with Orthis. No accident.

  • caleb says:

    BTW, that older cartoon adaptation of the Moomins – one with that distinct anime-ish touch – was damn awesome.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Wollheim is a name to remember. He was a card carrying member of the Communist party who was lead rabble rouser of the Futurians. He and his cronies showed up to a couple of sci-fi fan clubs specifically to sgut them down for being insufficiently dedicated to making sci-fi serve the Party. He would have fit right in at Tor today.

  • H.P. says:

    “Has Lundwall ever heard of cognitive dissonance? Lundwall condemns those who look to the past for inspiration while praising those who look to the future for the same elements.”

    No dissonance needed if someone embraces the Whiggish view of history. Of course any real familiarity with actual history would dispel that view, which is all the more reason to suppress looking to the past.

  • H.P. says:

    As to sex v. violence, I will limit myself to saying that it was Helen of Troy’s “face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium,” and not the other way around.

  • A bit uncertain that Princess of Mars predates westerns.

    What about all the Ned Buntline dime novels or that early sf/western mix of Frank Reade Steam Man of the Prairie books?

    Unless you want to say you’re using “western” in the sense of a very specific type of historical novel whereas the early dime novels were, however improbable, contemporary literature — the thrillers and (for Reade) technothrillers of the day.

    Good post though in informing me Lundwall’s book isn’t worth reading.

    • Morgan says:

      I did not even think about the dime novels. The term western is generally not used for that but THE VIRGINIAN and after. That is the context I use it. My copy of Lundwall’s book is deteriorating considering it is 45 years old. Probably fewer copies out there than 15 years ago.

  • Leave a Reply to ID Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *