The Fall and Rise of Science Fiction

A reader asks a fascinating question. He speaks of a recent history of science fiction he’d read, and says the editors “laid the blame of ghetto-izing science fiction at John W. Campbell’s feet. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter.”

If the editors made the claim that science fiction was popular and mainstream before Campbell, and ghettoized after, I scorn this opinion as not merely ahistorical, but absurd.

The first fathers of science fiction, Wells, Verne, and the now-forgotten Olaf Stabledon, wrote for a general audience and were admired and respected as much (or as little) as any other writers. However, the next generation of science fiction writers, including figures like Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Robert E. Howard, wrote boy’s adventure fiction. Beloved as these stories are to fans like myself, they were comicbookish, aimed at children, and dealt with their themes in a childish way.

These stories are, in my fanboy opinion, simply great, but simply not great art.

Let us look up a few dates. Jules Verne published A Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864, From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1869. HG Wells wrote War Of The Worlds in 1898. The Time Machine was published in 1895, and The Invisible Man was 1897, First Men In The Moon was 1901. Basically, Wells is a generation later than Verne. Under the Moons of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs had been serialized in 1912; the same year Tarzan of the Apes came out. Olaf Stapledon wrote Last and First Men in 1930, Odd John in 1935, Star Maker in 1937. Hence, Stapledon was a generation after that. Meanwhile, Hugo Gernsbeck published sci-fi pulps in America between 1926 and 1936. EE Doc Smith’s Skylark of Space was published in 1928, and the sequel Skylark Three in 1930. In 1932 Adlous Huxley wrote his famed dystopia Brave New World and George Orwell wrote his famous dystopia Nineteen-Eighty Four in 1948. ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton was publishing his ‘Captain Future’ stories throughout the 1940’s.

If count Olaf Stapledon as a respectable mainstream writer, and Tarzan as a mainstream character, and we count EE Doc Smith as a ghettoized sci-fi writer, and John Carter, Warlord of Mars, as a character unknown to the mainstream; if we also count Huxley and Orwell as mainstream writers and World Wrecker Hamilton as unknown and unloved outside the SF ghetto, the curious fact emerges that there is no one date that divides ghettoized science fiction from science fiction acceptable to mainstream polite society. Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four has always been taken seriously by literary mavens, and I venture to say that Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury eventually gained equal recognition.

With these days in mind, it does not look like there was a date before which science fiction was taken seriously, then Campbell ruined it, and we only recently climbed out of the ghetto into which Hard SF thrust us. It looks like certain Englishmen took SF ideas soberly, and the Americans sold more popular material, as perhaps befits our national character. But anytime anyone wrote a book with real literary merit — usually, for some reason, dystopias — it came to mainstream attention.

However, such books are exceptions. It is safe to say that by and large science fiction was ignored and shunned by the literary establishment throughout the postwar years, even when writers of profound literary merit, such as Gene Wolfe or Cordwainer Smith, appeared among us.

By and large science fiction in America before Campbell was a wasteland of pulp-fiction, tales told without scientific realism, without art, with minimal craft, meant to be read for a thrill and forgotten the next day. Campbell singlehandedly brought in the scientific realism that not only inspired a generation of scientists and engineers, but gave SF its first glimmering dawn of respectability. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), whatever we might think, pro or con, about its merits, was the first science fiction book to achieve widespread popularity and bestseller status outside the SF ghetto: and Heinlein was the essential Campbell writer. (I also note that Stranger is not merely a Swiftian satire, but also a dystopia.)

The analogy would be as if a pulp magazine editor of Westerns insisted on historical accuracy, or an editor of bloodsoaked detective pulps insisted on correct forensics and police procedures: and then discovered and published Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

The breaking out from the SF ghetto into the mainstream of respectability did not come from the New Wave or the Cyberpunk or any later schools rebelling against the hard-SF school of Campbelline writing: it came from other media. The first mainstream movie by a mainstream director taken with complete seriousness by the establishment was 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY — and the influence of Arthur C. Clarke, another essential Campbell writer, was not absent. The television show Star Trek brought science fiction into everyone’s living room; but it was the rousing success of Star Wars, and nothing else, that brought science fiction out of the ghetto and into the mainstream.

Once Star Wars overwhelmed and transmogrified the entertainment industry, it was as if the mainstream surrendered to the inevitable: even in polite circles people stopped pretending they were not enamored of the wildest or most refreshingly childlike dreams of the far future, or of galaxies long, long ago. It had become acceptable once more to pine for heroes and princesses. You could make references to such things in cocktail parties or in the carpool.

Fantasy does not have a figure comparable to John W. Campbell, Junior, or, at least, not on the editorial side. Perhaps we could name Lin Carter during his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series: however, even Mr. Carter would admit that he was merely skateboarding the wake of that eighteen-wheeler of the fantasy field, Tolkien’s trilogy.

Tolkien singlehandedly brought fantasy back from its exile in the Victorian days to the nursery. Gary Gygax brought Tolkien’s version of the mythic world, peopled with Robert E. Howardian characters, into the tabletops of fandom worldwide. The Elves in Gygax are full-sized Tolkienian elves, not diminutive Shakespearean elves. it is safe to say that even folk who have not read Tolkien, if they have read modern fantasy, have read Tolkien. Perhaps there are readers who only read China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, and Michael Moorcock or the like, and studiously avoid anything smelling of elvish leaves from Lothlorian: but I will boldly say that even such rebellions against Tolkien, or explorations into the seas farthest from the waters of Narnia or Middle Earth, are influenced by what they react against.

Fantasy was not merely scorned by the Literary Establishment, it was hated. For this I have no explanation, only a hunch. The hunch is rather self serving, so I offer it only as a question, not as a statement. Fantasy by its nature is supernatural: it involves things beyond the fields we know, and holds the echo of the horns of fairy dimly blowing o’er dark hills under the moon. The Literary mavens are more concerned with Social Justice or harsh critique of bourgeoisie society than with Perilous Realm, or the strange wars of the elfin knights against the uttermost Night. My question is whether fantasy, as written in the West, evokes and conjures Christian or Classical imagery, or Norse: are not all fantasy stories some echo either of Armageddon or Ragnarok? is it true that the imposers of Social Justice live in an airtight chamber of the mind, and loathe to see the windows opened to catch any breeze of worlds beyond the stars, or hint of the horns of elfland singing lingering silver notes?

This might also hint as to why the most celebrated fantasy authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were Christian, whereas the science fiction authors most widely recognized by the mainstream, and I mean Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, were not only not Christians, but wrote dystopian fiction. I offer this as no more than a suggestion: but dystopias find favor in the eyes of the Literary Establishment and the Imposers of Social Justice because the airtight orthodoxy of the social reformers, conditioners, and Thought Policemen have two telling concerns: they fear what will happen if their project goes wrong, or they fear how society will turn out if their project is not undertaken.

Christian fantasy contains an element of hope, hope as poignant as grief; whereas dystopian literature is about despair, or at least, as in the case of Olaf Stapledon, about stoic resignation to the inevitable inhumanity of history.