The First People to Really Make Science Fiction Work

Saturday , 23, September 2017 39 Comments

This crowdfunding pitch I came across via Cory Doctorow managed managed to lose me at the first sentence:

So Robert Heinlein is what we call one of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein. And those are the first people to really make science fiction work…

I suppose I should be happy with it. As much as you hear today about Mary Shelley inventing the science fiction novel, it maybe ought to be comforting hearing that people are still peddling yesterday’s narrative. But am I really supposed to believe that Jules Verne and H. G. Wells failed to really make science fiction work…? That A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars just… didn’t work…?

There are many others, to be sure… but I must say that it is particularly galling to be told that C. L. Moore failed to make science fiction work with her Northwest Smith stories. Show her work to someone that has been taught their entire life that science fiction really only started with Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein and they’re liable to feel betrayed. She’s just that good.

And then there’s this other guy you may have heard of, H. P. Lovecraft. He is a figure so tremendously influential, he is practically a genre unto himself. You don’t go into a game store and find figurines of Hari Seldon, Lazarus Long, or those pitiful alien creatures who went extinct when the Star of Bethlehem lit up the sky. No, you see games and toys and miniature figures based on the works of Lovecraft. Those other guys…? With the except of the stray Starship Troopers product, it’s just not there.

I’m not sure who decided that Lovecraft doesn’t count as science fiction that works… but the editor of one of the leading science fiction magazine of the thirties had no problem making him the cover story.

Evidently there’s been some narrowing of the terminology. But why…? For most people, something like Star Wars is synonymous with science fiction. And it’s absolutely nothing like the work of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. No, it hearkens back to the work of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and later writers that took him as the starting point for what science fiction even was. Writers such as Leigh Brackett who would end up writing the first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back.

And it’s not just in film that it’s like this. In role-playing games, Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke really are nothing special. The “big three” of Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha are Andre Norton, Brian Aldiss, and Sterling Lanier. The “big three” of Traveller are guys like H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb, and Poul Anderson.

So who decided that Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke are the end all be all of science fiction…? If they really were as big and as influential as I’m told, I would expect to see their influence to have more of an impact wherever science fiction is invoked. But that’s just not what happens. Don’t get me wrong. They wrote some mighty good stuff. But compared to the real giants of the field, they are little more than a flash in the pan.

39 Comments
  • What’s interesting is I think by this they mean later Heinlein– sprawling narratives that are all over the map, overly verbose, where not much goes on and there’s lots of weird sex fantasies, as that’s what most of this crowd is into.

    If you look at a lot of Heinlein’s really great work like Rocket Ship Galileo, Double Star, etc. I bet they won’t give it much of the time of day.

    But yes, it’s a pretty insulting statement to several great authors.

    • Vlad James says:

      I would argue the opposite, Jon. Heinlein’s early work was when he was still a hardcore leftist and hardcore socialist, arguing on behalf of a benevolent big government and the utopian society it produces.

      Heinlein’s later work was when he became a right-wing libertarian, and the greatest evil and impediment to personal freedom was government.

      That’s why leftists love “Stranger in a Strange Land” but not “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” or “The Glory Road”.

      Of course, in today’s warped SJW world, EVEN Heinlein’s early socialist-inspired, pro-government work, like “Starship Troopers” (obviously a great book, regardless) is considered “right-wing”.

      But yeah, Heinlein himself would probably be surprised to learn that he was the first person to “make science fiction work”.

  • Nathan says:

    Let’s see, van Vogt got pushed out of the limelight as did Hubbard over Scientology, Kuttner and Moore left science fiction for more profitable writing (as did Brackett, Hamilton Asimov, and Clarke). Campbell pushed out the professional writers for true-believers and hobbyists because the latter were more amenable to writing his ideas instead of their own, and the former found that stories written for Campbell had no market elsewhere.

    In short, no one in the Campbelline vein figured out how to make this science fiction thing work and make money off of it at the same time.

  • Anthony says:

    I keep hearing people mock the “Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel” thing, and I don’t know why.

    The best I can tell is that people are firm that fantasy and sci-fi are the same thing or inseperable (I get the arguments; I approve of genre mashing; I don’t buy it), and don’t believe in counting Frankenstein as any sort of break in tradition.

    But after reading some of John C. Wright’s work on the subject it seems pretty clear that it was doing something different.

    Plus, it is a pretty good and very influential book.

    But I suppose I get that it is often unfairly used as part of the push to sweep the pulp guys out of the picture.

    • Jeffro says:

      By all means, please elucidate this matter.

      Tell me all of the 20th century science fiction authors that are directly inspired by Mary Shelley, that sought to imitate her, and that singled her out as being the powerhouse that energized their science fiction imaginings.

      Ah, but you can’t. Because it was another author that more than any other held that distinction.

      • Anthony M says:

        I was referring to the many, many, many Frankenstein adaptation and riffs off of it that followed, but hey, assume away.

        If you want to argue that Frankenstein wasn’t influential to pop culture, be my guest, but I think that one is a losing battle.

        • Jeffro says:

          The question is not whether or not Frankenstein was influential to pop culture. The question is whether or not Frankenstein was influential to science fiction.

          How many science fiction authors can you name that would have cited Mary Shelly as their primary inspiration, their motivation for becoming a writer, and/or that defined for them what science fiction even was?

          • Anthony M says:

            Actually, what I said was that “It was a very influential book”, with no qualifier at the end(though it obviously was influential to science fiction, since the many works based on it, or movies inspired by it, were science fiction works).

            This is relevant because it means that a book – a science fiction book written earlier than the pulps –
            affected pop culture in huge ways that reverberate to this day.

          • Nathan says:

            Relevant? Hardly. We already had the words of Moore, Asimov, Lewis and others discussing the influences of various pre-pulp authors on the field, including Byron, Poe, Hawthorne, Bierce, and others. No one claimed that such an influence did not exist–despite Campbell’s attempts to erase said influence.

          • Anthony M says:

            Hey, my only point was that I don’t really see the phrase “‘Frankenstein’ was the first science fiction novel” mockworthy.

            This is not a book that was only popular within a very small hardcore nerdbase, as with the Campbellians. The story resonated with many people. It is at least a defensible claim.

          • Nathan says:

            The claim is not one that survives scholarship. Frankenstein was not the first Romanticist paean against unethical science, nor did it predate a mini-genre of French moon voyage stories in the late 1700s.

          • Anthony M says:

            This at least raises a pretty interesting question…

            Why “Frankenstein”?

          • Nathan says:

            It helps to have married Percy Bysshe Shelly and be part of Lord Byron’s influential writing circle. (All of which wouldn’t have mattered if Frankenstein wasn’t quality. But if you’re wanting a signal boost in Romantic times, there’s no better place than Mary Shelley’s social circles.)

          • Jeffro says:

            “This is relevant because it means that a book – a science fiction book written earlier than the pulps –
            affected pop culture in huge ways that reverberate to this day.”

            That has nothing to do with science fiction. None.

            Okay, so there is a book that has until very recently not been considered science fiction that is an enduring classic that is really inspirational to people that don’t necessarily care about science fiction. WHO CARES?

            The elevation of Mary Shelley to the status of being the cornerstone of the field is poppycock, pure and simple. It is a mean-spirited rhetorical jab doled out by people intent on overseeing the continued degradation of the genre.

            I have no patience for it.

          • Anthony M says:

            Okay, so there is a book that has until very recently not been considered science fiction…

            It is science fiction, though.

            …that is really inspirational to people that don’t necessarily care about science fiction. WHO CARES?

            We do. I thought that was the point, in fact. “Frankenstein” is a science fiction book that made a pop culture impact far greater than a great many future writers elevated as the cornerstone of the field, even among non-science fiction fans.

            That’s the exact sort of thing we SHOULD be paying attention to, yes?

            It is a mean-spirited rhetorical jab doled out by people intent on overseeing the continued degradation of the genre.

            I’ve never see her elevated as the CORNERSTONE of the genre in the sense that it was the most influential on the field, merely as the earliest example of a work that can be considered science fiction.

            I am quite serious when I say – who is using it as a “mean-spirited rhetorical jab”?

            I’ve never seen that. And I get that this is sort of a gaslighting thing…but really, I’ve never seen that.

          • Nathan says:

            Actually, Frankenstein is Gothic literature, and its tropes fall in line with those established for fantastic horror as established by Castle of Otranto. It holds a position in the weird literature canon, but it is by far less influential in the development of science fiction and fantasy than Poe, Hawthorne, and the writing circle which Shelley was a part of.

          • Jeffro says:

            “That’s the exact sort of thing we SHOULD be paying attention to, yes?”

            No. Because it’s nonsense. It’s stupid. It really has nothing to do with the subject of science fiction.

            If you have NO IDEA why people only just recently started pushing this “Mary Shelley invented science fiction” talking point, then please… just stop carrying water for them.

          • Dan Wolfgang says:

            “I’ve never see her elevated as the CORNERSTONE of the genre in the sense that it was the most influential on the field, merely as the earliest example of a work that can be considered science fiction.

            I am quite serious when I say – who is using it as a “mean-spirited rhetorical jab”?”

            I can answer that.

            I have here an article titled “Sorry, Sad Puppies: Science Fiction Has Always Been Political” https://archive.is/yudH1

            Do you want to know the first title listed in the article? Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

            Do you want to know which book is curiously absent from the article? A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

            Because that would contradict the narrative that Left Wing political propaganda has always been present in Science Fiction literature.

    • Nathan says:

      There is no real consensus on the first SF novel/stories. Asimov thought SF began with Poe, as so many elements of short fiction have. He even mocked efforts to sweep further back, noting that science fiction fans had a tendency to glomp onto anything in the past even remotely SF shaped as part of the genre (see: Verne). And Shelley was writing in the same Gothic tradition that Castle of Otranto began in the 1760s, that continued through Poe, Hawthorne, and Stoker, and that Weird Tales thrived with before Campbell made his concerted effort to eliminate the Gothic from science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps Frankenstein might be the first significant scientific-marvelous, and its place is the canon is assured. But identifiable science fiction works precede it in English and in French, and more significant writers followed.

    • Vlad James says:

      Yeah, I don’t have a problem with people considering “Frankenstein” to be the first science fiction novel. I do, too.

      However, I agree with Jeffro that the work was not particularly influential on other writers, even in its own century.

    • Dan Wolfgang says:

      Fantasy and Science Fiction are inseparable. The idea that they are two separate categories was formed from the ideological atheist worldview.

      There’s a video of Damon Knight where he compares Lucian’s True History to Elijah being taken to heaven in a whirlwind. He acts as if the Bible is a work of fiction akin to The Wizard of Oz. The idea that modern science is above the fantastic and the miraculous not only goes against the Christian worldview, but also the very history of science itself.

      • Anthony M says:

        Fantasy and Science Fiction are inseparable. The idea that they are two separate categories was formed from the ideological atheist worldview.

        I’d agree if I couldn’t see the differences pretty easily.

        • Nathan says:

          Lay your definitions on the table.

          • Anthony M says:

            This is a conversation that started awhile back and ran for a long time. While I appreciate your position, I don’t think either of us are going to be convinced by the debate.

            Call this a cop out if you like; I just don’t see the point of rehashing a disagreement that has been hashed out a billion times already.

          • Anthony M says:

            That said, I don’t wish to hit and run. John C. Wright places its beginnings with Poe:

            http://www.scifiwright.com/2009/09/tales-of-mystery-and-imagination-or-what-is-the-first-sf-novel/

            I have no quarrel with his comment, nor am I overly wed to the idea that the first sci-fi novel was “Frankenstein. I merely point out that in that excellent essay Mr. Wright does set out to differentiate sci-fi from other genres and does a splendid job.

          • Nathan says:

            Wright’s definitions only really serve in the curated gardens of American science fiction. World science fiction, including continental and East Asian, blur his definitions entirely. Is Attack on Titan science fiction or fantasy? Are the isekai of El Hazard and Familiar of Zero fantasy or science fiction? They have the tropes of both. The Grumpy Converter of Valerian and Laureline defies science, and the gods of Hypsis are fantastical compared to the science fiction at the heart of the series.

          • Xavier Basora says:

            Anthony

            Not to pile on but I concour with Nathan about the continenyial scifi tradition has very dtrong fantasyvelemrnts. I’d evrn add that th Acts of the Apostles, the hagiographies of the saints and the fact that there were eyewitness accounts of saints in ectasy and levitating from the ground as further blurring of fantasy and scifi.

            Frankenstein does have an influence insofar as its a substitute for Lovecraft in those culture that’ve never heard of him until very recently (Spain for sure as the eclesistical authourities would’ve pressured the govt and even today he’s pretty much obsure)
            France for sure due to the rationalist side and maybe de Sade

            xavier

          • john silence says:

            I would describe SF – by that I mean hard SF, which is what folks tend to mean when they enter these fantasy vs SF arguments – as “materialist fantasy”. Fantasy that is limited by what is viewed as at least remotely possible and conceivable within the current scientistic weltanschauung.

      • Joe Keenan says:

        Sci/Fi and Fantasy are polar opposites. “Classic” Sci/Fi is nothing more than a reactionary materialistic philosophy, it is the antithesis of Fantasy. It is anti-human.

    • Nicholas Archer says:

      I read a few articles discussing how Science Fiction originated in Ancient Times and that it was a combination of Ancient Science and Epic Fantasy.

  • Nicholas Archer says:

    Aren’t Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke; considered the Big Three of Science Fiction because they were the most influential of the Silver Age Writers? On the subject of Age, what came after the Silver Age in Science Fiction History?

    • Nathan says:

      There’s a bit of revisionism with the Big Three. A. E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, and Heinlein were the original three, but fan politics and Kuttner’s early death led to van Vogt and Kuttner’s disappearance from the list. This isn’t to diminish Asimov or Clarke; the Big Three should rightly be the Big Six, with Bradbury rounding out the ranks. Perhaps even a Big Seven, as much of Kuttner’s work was cowritten with Catherine Moore.

      I have a loose chronology of Campbelline Age (what many call Silver) from 1937-1954, Golden Age (I use Robert Silverberg’s definition here, although the Gilded Age might be more appropriate) from 1954-1967, and New Wave from 1967-1971.

  • Chris L says:

    I’m a bit of a Heinlein fan-boi, but not even I think he was the first to make SF work. Obviously since all 3 gentlemen were fans first, others made it work before they did.

  • Clarke wasn’t a Campbellian author and didn’t subscribe to Campbell’s vision of SF. He descends from the bleaker tradition of H.G. Wells. Bradbury was the forerunner of New Wave. The real third of the Big Three was A.E. van Vogt.

    • john silence says:

      There is often this mystical element to his work, something that definitely isn’t Campbellian.
      As for bleakness, I think that is what made him so appealing from New Wave onwards… “Childhood’s End” combines radical collectivism and cosmic pessimism, so it is no wonder that leftists are attracted to it like flies are to honey.

  • john silence says:

    What about British pre-WW2 SF authors, some of whom actually achieved “serious” literary acclaim even back then? Folks like Stapledon.

  • Joe Keenan says:

    Mary Shelly wrote horror/myth, not Sci/Fi, that’s why she’s still read. She may have been a poor writer, but she was an awesome mythologist. Her work outlives her contemporaries Percy Shelly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin. Likewise, Arthur, Isaac, and Bobby are little read while Howard, Burroughs and Lovecraft live on. Time the best .

  • Rick Derris says:

    Cory Doctorow should concentrate on writing better books. Everything since “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” has been awful.

    “Makers” was atrocious and shouldn’t have been longer than 100 pages.

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