Zarkov, Heinlein, Williamson, and Brackett

We have just make contact, via Gridley Wave, with Dr. Zarkov on the rogue planet Mongo, which, as we all know, is a earth-sized body from outside our solar system that recently and inexplicable swerved from its collision course with earth.

Rather than relating his tremendous adventures (during which he and Virginian Captain John Carter, Dray Prescott, Jonathan Dark, and the Grey Lensman overcame Dr. Fu Manchu and Dr. Moriarty and the beast known as ‘Kur’ who were aiding Ming the Merciless in his plans) Zarkov instead has a word or two, and some rather trenchant quotes, about the state of the science fiction genre.

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Science fiction and fantasy writers in general don’t try to exclude those who just use the elements to preach, so I find it peculiar that the other side tries to restrict the genre.

For more than hundred years, there has been written speculative fiction for the sake of the adventures and as a new way to view the world. Stories where the key elements are in the foreground. Then there are those who simply use the sci-fi and fantasy as a backdrop for more “serious” motives.

The French science fiction and horror writer Maurice Renard, how admired Poe and Wells, wrote in 1909:

” I say a new genre. Until Wells, one might well have doubted it. Before the author of The War of the Worlds, those rare portrayers of what would later be called the “scientific-marvelous” did so only from afar, on occasion, and (it seems) as a game. Cyrano de Bergerac made it a kind of stepping-stone to his utopias; Swift used it as a means to construct his satires; more recently, Flammarion took advantage of it to concretize certain metaphysical notions which might have been too abstract for the average reader to grasp otherwise; Edmond About took it and turned it toward comedy and, in doing so, created an early parody of this future genre (compare, for example, his The Notary’s Nose with The Island of Dr Moreau). In fact, this long succession of mixed and eclectic literary productions is far from finished: utopists who “need a world” see in the scientific-marvelous a method of estrangement [dépaysement] too precious to abandon, and satirists will never give up such a resource which provides them with so many possibilities for allegory and allusion.

It was Edgard [sic] Poe who, in his two stories The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, was the true founder of the pure scientific-marvelous novel, in the same way as he invented the detective novel with three other prototypical short stories. But the former were so complete and synthesizing, so absolutely definitive, that he engendered only imitators and no true disciples during his time. For stories of the scientific-marvelous, he did have some famous descendants in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam who wrote The Future Eve, in Stevenson with Doctor Jeckyll [sic] and Mr. Hyde, and then finally in H.G. Wells.

With Wells, the genre began to flourish in all its full amplitude. With him, the scientific- marvelous (as some have come to designate it) was consecrated and given life, as in a baptism.”

What Heinlein had to say about some of the same decades ago:

“A sick literature. What do we find so often today? Autobiographical novels centered around neurotics, even around sex maniacs, concerning the degraded, the psychotic, or the “po’ white trash” of back-country farms portrayed as morons or worse, novels about the advertising industry or some other equally narrow area of human experience such as the personal life of a television idol or the experiences of a Park Avenue call girl.

“In my opinion a very large portion of what is now being offered to the public as serious, contemporary-scene fiction is stuff that should not be printed, but told only privately—on a psychiatrist’s couch.

“In any case, I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals, and commuters who are unhappy with their wives—for goodness sake! Let them find other wives, other jobs—and shut up!

“I must add that some interlopers have sneaked in under the back of the tent and are masquerading as science fiction. I refer to the “anti-science-fiction” which sometimes appears labeled as science fiction, both in books and magazines. This stuff is still another symptom of the neurotic, sometimes pathologic, anti-intellectualism all too common today; it is the wail of the grown-up infant unwilling and perhaps unable to bring reason and reasoned action to bear on our pressing problems. Instead it offers a “devil theory” in which “science” is something outside of an inimical to the human race and “scientists” the inhuman high priests thereof.

“But you will recognize anti-science fiction when you see it. Its childish, screaming, afraid-of-the-dark hysteria is easy to spot.”

As mentioned before, the “New Wave” in the 60s tried to “reinvent” the genre by taking out much of what defined it. If that was an attempt to stimulate the growth of some new branches and twigs on the bush of science fiction, then no reason to be skeptical about it. But if it was an attempt to trim the same bush, that’s another issue.

The link has been posted before, but I deserves to be mentioned again since there are some claims that female writers were suppressed in the old days and are still not welcomed (

TANGENT: Leigh, there were very few women writing science fiction during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Were there any special problems you had to face being a woman?

BRACKETT: There certainly wasn’t with me. They all welcomed me with open arms. There were so few of us nuts that they were just happy to receive another lamb into the fold. It was simply that there wasn’t many women reading science fiction, not many were interested. Francis Stevens sold very fine science fiction stories to Argosy back in 1917, back around that period.

HAMILTON: Her name, you see, could have been a man’s name and Leigh’s name could have been a man’s name. Catherine Moore, who wrote SF long before you did, and a dear friend of ours, wrote under the name of C. L. Moore. Now, I don’t think there was much real bias on the part of women’s libbers–

BRACKETT: I never ran into any. On some of the first few stories I sold people would write into the letter columns and say Brackett’s story was terrible, women can’t write science fiction. That was ridiculous, there were women scientists you know, there’s no problem there. What they were complaining about was that I didn’t know how to write a story (chuckling). When I learned a little better I stopped hearing this. What they were complaining about was the quality really, not…you know. The editors certainly, there was never any problem with them.

TANGENT: What about in science fiction? Has it changed at all?

BRACKETT: As I say, there never was any discrimination as far as I know of, but a great many more women are writing science fiction than ever before.

TANGENT: What about the women’s libbers in the field now, say Joanna Russ for instance?

BRACKETT: Well, Joanna’s got her own axe to grind. She’s got her own way of looking at things, but I never worried about it much one way or the other.

TANGENT: It’s like she and others assume the problem existed and are working from there.

BRACKETT: Well, certainly in the science fiction world it never did. It was just that not many women read it.

BRACKETT: What I hate to see are the occasional attempts that are made, periodically, none of them ever last very long, to mold the field into one particular thing, and say science fiction has to be such and such and so. In other words, just what I happen to think science fiction should be. It’s the one field that you cannot really whack down into one simple thing–

TANGENT: I’d like each of you to give some thoughts on what you think of science fiction today. Gripes, feelings, trends, etc.

BRACKETT: I would hate to see the field become introverted; to see it become kind of an in joke where everybody’s using each others stuff…writing for each other, instead of the public…which can happen. I hope it will always retain that openness and freedom to move in any direction. You have new talent coming out all the time; you have new ideas, great new paths. And I think this is good. I would hate to see anything happen to it to close it in.

TANGENT: So science fiction is a literature of ideas, no matter how they are expressed?

BRACKETT: I would say so. There’s room for everything.

And I guess some quotes from Jack Williamson can be repeated as well:

“The labels you hear so much of—”commercial,” “serious writer,” “mainstream,” “hack,” “New Wave,” “experimental”—are usually very misleading. No matter how “serious” the intentions of authors are, they can’t communicate anything without craftsmanship. This is one reason I’ve always admired writers such as Somerset Maugham and J.P. Marquand. You can see the skilled, practical, conscious literary craftsmanship underlying their literary art. The same is true for some of the great mystery writers like Chandler and Hammett, who developed their writing in popular genres with great artistry and skill. In my own field, Ed Hamilton and Hank Kuttner and more recently Bob Silverberg are all writers who formed a fine command of the SF genre early in their careers and who later on used this to do work that is more consciously “literary” and hence more admired by critics. But certainly the writing they did earlier was deservedly popular among SF fandom, who evidently found these works “serious” enough to merit reading.

“I am opposed, however, to literary tricks that tend towards obscurity or artificial difficulty, though I can see arguments for that kind of approach. My own experience as a teacher of writing confirms my sense that new authors with artistic ambitions may find themselves scorning too many of the old forms and patterns simply because they blindly associate them with hack work. The point is that these patterns and structures form the basic vocabulary through which all SF writers must speak. That’s one reason I’m not completely sympathetic with contemporary writers like Silverberg and Chip Delany and Tom Disch, who are clearly aiming to get themselves recognized as “serious” or mainstream authors. I still feel that in terms of developing a literary reputation, the odds remain with the writer who is writing for the mass audience, the way Shakespeare or Dickens or Dostoyevsky were.”

So, what kind of science fiction writers are usually forgotten, and who are remembered?