Monday, February 24, 2020

Cabal in New York, 1939

I noted in July last year that 2019 was the 80th anniversary year of what is now called cosplay. The first cosplayers were Forrest J Ackerman and his friend Morojo, who went to the first World Science Fiction Convention dressed in character. The dates were July 2-4, 1939. The place was New York City, including at the World's Fair. What I neglected to mention is that the characters they were portraying were from Things to Come, a movie that had been in theaters just three years before. What a powerful influence it must have been on young science fiction fans of the time. Here was a perfect vision of the future--clean, pure, streamlined, attractive, progressive, based in science. Unfortunately those visions began crashing down just two months after the convention when first one brand of forward-looking socialists, then another, invaded and subjugated Poland. I'll remind you once again of William Gibson's story "The Gernsback Continuum" and the connection it makes between Gernsbackian (or Wellsian) science fiction and fascism.

I have used the word cosplay here even though I hate it for its ugliness. Filk is another word from fandom offensive to the ear. Thinking of the ugliness of these words and so many other aspects of science fiction and its fandom brings up a question: Is science fiction essentially an unaesthetic or even anti-aesthetic genre? Put another way, is science fiction interested first in things other than aesthetics? Remember, in Things To Come, the artists are the ones who object to the perfect society of the future. They rebel and riot and threaten the impending moon mission. Within science fiction itself, it is usually the artists who make of it beautiful things: witness the art of pulp magazine covers or artists such as Virgil Finlay. Writers and fans so often seem to turn their attention and efforts elsewhere. So I'll ask again, is science fiction essentially an unaesthetic or anti-aesthetic genre?

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Is science fiction essentially an unaesthetic or even anti-aesthetic genre?


    Next question -- do lovers of the Gothic care more about aesthetics than aficionados of more general "horror" fiction?


    The case can be made that the Gothic is nothing "but" an exercise in aesthetics.

    Horror fiction, to be potent, must deal with real people who are living, afraid and vulnerable.

    Science fiction all too often gets away with just an idea; it's lack of fully-rounded characters is one of the many things that make it so frustrating.

    1. Hi, Emery,

      Again you have made some interesting and provocative statements, one of which is "that the Gothic is nothing 'but' an exercise in aesthetics." I invite you to expand on that.

      I agree with you that science fiction too often suffers from "a lack of fully-rounded characters." For a long time--while I was studying literature in college and for years afterwards--I didn't read science fiction for just that reason. Part of that problem I think comes from science fiction authors, who are also very often not fully rounded as human beings. Another is that science fiction is supposed to be based in science. The scientist, author, or layperson under the sway of what is called "science" tends to look at human beings as basically a soup of chemicals, or animated meat, or a collection of genes selfishly seeking to propagate themselves into the next generation. How can there be much human interest in such things? Despite its shortcomings, science fiction goes on.

      Thanks again for writing.


    2. Yet some authors managed to write some very good and hard science fiction with interesting characters. Some obvious examples would be Raymond Z Gallun or Stephen Baxter. It is true however that in the interwar era and golden age fiction stories the Big Ideas tended to dominate.

    3. Hi, Jordan,

      I don't think I have read the two authors you mention. Thanks for the insights into the history of science fiction.