| Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations
Book by Liverpool University Press, 2000
Speaking Science Fiction: Introduction
The papers collected here represent the fallout from a very successful conference held in Liverpool in 1996, under the aegis of the University of Liverpool and the Science Fiction Foundation.
They indicate, I believe, the way in which the science fiction field continues to diversify and departmentalize. This process is not, perhaps, to everyone's taste; but these papers demonstrate encouragingly how intelligence and perception have crept in. In the earlier stages of its growth, the genre or mode of sf was weirdly homogeneous. Brian Attebery puts the matter clearly, when speaking of issues of Amazing Stories or Thrilling Wonder. He says that to scrutinize these magazines ‘from cover to cover, complete with ads, editorials, and letters from readers, reading the hacks along with the more ambitious writers, one gets the sense that it is all one thing. Rather than being self-sufficient objects of art, the individual stories are part of a continuous stream of discourse’. Of course it is so. And I remember my blessedly naïve days when I liked it that way. Liked it until I came to write myself, and wanted every story to aspire to Attebery's definition, a self-sufficient object of art. Those old days when Amazing was available and not much else presented the tempting possibility to its adherents of being able to read everything published. Scarcity of material lead to such litanies as I witnessed at the first World SF Convention to leave the shores of North America, held in London in 1957.
A major part of the entertainment consisted of a panel – or perhaps one should say convocation – of people such as Sam Moskowitz, Robert A. Madle and Forrest Ackerman asking each other such questions as ‘Who wrote the lead serial for the first issue of Gernsback's Air Wonder Stories?’ and, ‘In which issue of Fantastic Adventures did Tarleton Fiske's story “Almost Human” appear?’ coupled with ‘Who wrote under the pen name of Tarleton Fiske?’ Since those days, sf and its allied fields have become more various and more sophisticated. It is no longer possible to read everything, to see everything. New departments have sprung up. Star Trek has been around for thirty years; saved from obscurity by the fans, it enjoys various incarnations: four TV series, eight films (so far), countless novelizations, books on the Klingon language, autobiographies, conventions, toys and insignia, as well as expositions on Trek physics. There are articles on the composers who wrote the music for the various 350 episodes. Plus that hallmark of an earlier fandom, fanzines. Star Trek alone, and all that therein is, commands a wider public by far than did the seminal Astounding in its palmy days.
Of course, this development reflects a great change in public taste. The daring hypothesis a few of us held, back in the forties or even earlier, that whole civilizations lived in the remote heart-stars we saw above our heads on a clear night, is daring no longer. The alien has now become, thanks to Star Trek and Star Wars and The X-Files, commercial coin. Yet we are wise to have reservations about this sweeping success of sf. As Pamela Sargent pointed out in a recent issue of Science-Fiction Studies (July 1997), ‘Visual science fiction is almost a virtual museum of the forms and ideas found in written sf, dumbed down to varying degrees and with occasional flashes of originality’. Much of the vitality of written sf lay in its conflict of ideas. Humanity was a descendant of some superbeings' escaped laboratory animal. Or we were going to inherit the stars. Or we had once owned a huge galactic empire which had collapsed. Or we were imprisoned on Earth, the Hell Planet, by a galactic culture, as measurably insane.
These ideas may not have been especially overwhelming in themselves: but placed cheek-by-jowl within the pages of a magazine such as Astounding they raised a fructifying debate. All attempt to digest some of the grand if unpalatable ideas informing our culture: that we have evolved from the humblest of origins, that empires come and go, and that Freudian analysis reveals some instability of mind in many people. That these ideas have now become part of common perception has robbed them of their original challenge. What is easily forgotten is that pressure on magazine space once meant compression of ideas. They were presented and received in the form of short stories. In her acute examination of an early Heinlein story, Farah Mendlesohn makes the point that only by studying the earlier shorter work can we perceive Robert Heinlein's shifting views of state and corporate monopolies, and so understand his political position as a whole.
It would be valuable to have a study of the short stories of other authors who were considered important at that shaping time, such as Robert Sheckley, William Tenn and (par excellence) Frederik Pohl. A volume entitled The Meanings of the SF Short Story would be a grand contribution to sf studies. If, as I suspect, Pamela Sargent is correct in her description of visual sf as a museum of past ideas, it behoves those writers who still write for the printed page to look forward rather than back, and to keep one step ahead of the zeitgeist. I confess I have not always looked far ahead myself; despite our best intentions, we cannot always practise what we preach. While preparing this introduction, it happens that I am reading Jean Heidmann's book, Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Heidmann devotes some sections to Titan, the largest satellite of the planet Saturn (almost the size of Mars). Titan may be in the prebiotic stage, a deep-freeze version of earth during its first few hundred million years.