Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part One

Although I have written in the past few days about Earl Norem and whip-poor-wills in weird fiction, my main focus right now is on dystopia and a dying science fiction. I will keep visiting those topics on my way back to Weird Tales and fantasy fiction.

So far, the entries in this series are:
Today's entry is a continuation.

Weird Tales was the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy. It began in 1923 when the Great War was still fresh in the minds of pulp readers. The shock, horror, and violence of the war had carried like an echo into the then-present. If fantasy and weird fiction look to the past and thus assume that we are living in a time of decadence, then Weird Tales suited the mood of the 1920s in some ways. But not in the main. The twenties may have been a time of decadence, especially in Europe, but for the main stream of American culture, it was a roaring time. We were busy, vigorous, with our eyes on the future and the past behind us. Something new and different was on the horizon. For readers of pulp magazines, that something new was science fiction.

The second American fantasy magazine of significance was Amazing Stories, first published in 1926. Amazing Tales was a science fiction magazine, the first of its kind here or anywhere. It came so early that the genre had not yet been properly named. The publisher of Amazing Tales, Hugo Gernsback, called it instead scientific fiction or scientifiction. Science fiction of course looks to the future. It is suited to a society that is vigorous, hopeful, and progressive in its outlook. (The word progressive has come to mean something far different in recent years than it did in the distant past.) When Amazing Stories came along, the Great War was still a recent memory, but the country had its eyes to the front. And even though the stock market collapsed and a great depression began just three years later, science fiction magazines proliferated into the 1930s and '40s. By the postwar period, science fiction was king, and though Weird Tales soldiered on, it finally reached its end in 1954.

To hear some people tell it, science fiction started dying sometime in the 1950s. Isaac Asimov claimed an end to its golden age in 1950. (Once a golden age ends--no matter what comes after it--by definition a period of decay sets in.) In her anthologies of the 1950s, Judith Merril argued in favor of the phrase speculative fiction instead of science fiction to describe the genre. In doing so, she may not have suggested that science fiction was dying, but when the terminology changes, especially when there are suggestions that a genre should become more literary, mature, or sophisticated, something--some kind of purity or innocence or just plain fun--is lost. Finally, in 1960, science fiction fan Earl Kemp published a fanzine called Who Killed Science Fiction?, a compilation and analysis of answers to questions he had sent out to the luminaries in his field.

Seventy-one authors replied to Mr. Kemp's questionnaire. Of those, fifty-five replied that, no, science fiction was not dead, although some felt that death was near. Eleven said that science fiction was already dead or dying. The reasons they gave included "dull, boring, and inferior material being published," changes in markets, problems with distribution, rising costs, a decline in the quality of the readership, and competition from comic books, paperback books, and television. In other words, the problems with science fiction, according to the seventy-one authors, could be attributed to publishers, editors, distributors, writers, readers, and fans. In other words, there was something wrong not with the genre of science fiction but with the people involved in it.

So, science fiction (like western civilization) has supposedly been dying or decaying for a long, long time. The question seems to me: How long is this going to take? If science fiction has been decaying since 1950 or dying since 1960, why isn't it gone by now? One possible answer is that the sorry state of science fiction in 1960 was, as I have said, due to problems exterior to science fiction--publishing, marketing, distribution, etc. If science fiction is dying now--or has been dying since 1980, for example--there could be a different problem, a problem with the genre itself. Maybe science fiction has some basic problem with its philosophy. Maybe it has reached its logical limits, as real life has caught up with or even surpassed it, or as the infinite futures promised by science fiction have been whittled down to a few not very promising futures (with dystopia and apocalypse on that very short list). Or maybe it's just that science fiction is at its natural end and nothing can be done to save it, for if postwar science fiction began in 1945, it has now reached an age of threescore and ten, all of a man's allotted years on this earth.

To be continued . . .

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. True, there is not the same quantity of SF being written these days as there was back in the 1960s. But a lot of the stuff being produced back then was not particularly memorable. And there is some superior stuff being done now.

    Really good (some are great) current authors include: Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Andy Weir, Jack McDevitt, Daniel Suarez, Daniel H. Wilson, Joe Haldeman, John Varley. I'll probably think of a few more later. All these writers produce thought-provoking fiction that satisfies.

    I can't find enough SF to satisfy my reading lusts these days, so now also read and enjoy crime, "thriller", and spy fiction. Nonetheless, SF is not dead or dying. There are just a lot of new paradigms that fewer authors seem capable of dealing with.

    1. Dear Howard,

      I'm glad you wrote, as I don't know enough about current science fiction to say whether or not it's dying. And I'm glad that there are so many authors who still write satisfying fiction.

      It seems to me that the people who say science fiction is dying are a little cranky. Maybe their brand of science fiction is dying, and that's what they don't like. Anyway, I'll have more to say on the topic in the remaining entries in this series.

      Thanks for writing.