No More Falconer: Science Fiction’s Past and Present

September 19, 2012 at 3:04 am | Posted in Essays | 4 Comments

There are a number of topics which science fiction authors, critics, and fans never seem to stop discussing. One of them is the decline of science fiction. Another is the balance of science and fiction in science fiction.

One idea that’s not among these obsessions is the right amount of science in science fiction criticism. As far as I know I’m the only one who is annoyed by this. If we want to argue about whether science fiction is in decline, we must show where it was, where it is now, and compute the slope. Is it going up, is it flat, or is it going down? Hypotheses and assertions are interesting, but where is the evidence?

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Paul Kincaid’s essay The Widening Gyre which started the latest round of discussion. But few people have read even most of the stories he cites in his review (and the review won’t exactly send them racing to the anthologies to remedy this) so inevitably the discussion has become frustratingly diffuse. For example, Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan managed to have what was certainly a very interesting discussion with Kincaid about this for an hour and a half, but in all that time none of them mentioned any examples of what any of them thought was bad (except “The Leviathan Who Thou Hast Made”, a story which almost no one defends) and only one example of anything good: M. John Harrison’s novel Empty Space.

Narrowly read, I agree almost entirely with Kincaid’s essay. That there are a lot of mediocre short stories being published is true almost by definition. That there aren’t enough really good short stories to fill the big Year’s Best anthologies was a point that Jonathan Strahan seemed unwilling to dispute on his podcast even though he edits one of them. When the argument is expanded to the genre as a whole, however, I think it becomes far more dubious (although Kincaid did say during the podcast that he thinks novels are doing better than short stories, his praise of novels remained faint, and much of what he says seems to encompass the genre as a whole, such as his pointing to Empty Space as an exemplar).

The most common criticism of Kincaid’s essay is that it is the latest in a long list of essays claiming the genre is in decline, a list stretching back to the beginning of the genre itself. It wasn’t true then, people say, so it’s probably not true now. But what is the evidence? To find out, I went back to Earl Kemp’s 1960 critical survey Who Killed Science Fiction? to see if I could find any similarities to Kincaid’s thinking in the foundational text of genre decline criticism.

On the reuse of old ideas:

  • “In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012

  • If the readers are screaming, they have more reason to. Science fiction is a branch of the entertainment business, the first axiom of which is: if the audience doesn’t laugh, the clown is not funny. Tedious rehashing of elderly themes will not cause the readers to applaud.” — Robert A. Heinlein, 1960

On the experience of reading:

  • “The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012

  • “I haven’t even tried to keep up with magazine science fiction in the past year, but as a book reviewer I am plain bored. Everything that comes in is a retelling (sometimes competent) of a dozen earlier stories. I have to flog myself to read science fiction books, and half the time (at least) I see no reason to finish them or to publish a review.” — Anthony Boucher, 1960

On the conviction of the authors:

  • “The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012

  • “[The average science fiction writer] may have acquired more technical skill than he had 20 years ago, but he has lost the ability to believe in his own dreams.” — Theodore Cogswell, 1960

It’s a fun exercise, but the truth is I cherry-picked these quotes from over a hundred responses, and if you read Who Killed Science Fiction? (and I strongly encourage anyone interested in genre criticism or history to read it) you will come away with the sense that science fiction has changed dramatically since 1960. The responses are a window into a world where short fiction magazines are all but the entire genre and “pocket paperbacks” are a disruptive technology. It’s a world where writers interested in other kinds of fiction (including fantasy!) write science fiction stories because they sell better. Perhaps most alien to us today, it’s a world where there’s no independent market for novels (almost all of them are short story collections and fixups), no self-publishing, and no e-publishing, so the loss of a few magazines would mean the literal extinction of the genre.

But I think the most interesting difference between the science fiction of 1960 and today is that in 1960 there was widespread agreement about the past and present of the genre. The genre’s commercial origins in the Depression-era pulps are within living memory for the people writing in Who Killed Science Fiction? and because they all read the same magazines they all agree on the current state of the genre as well. You get the feeling that if you asked them to graph the trend of the previous twenty years on a number of axes you would get the same graphs from everyone. In sales, the genre started small, then went through a boom period where demand exceeded the supply, but as of 1960 was experiencing a major correction. In style, the prose steadily improved from poor to at least workmanlike, with the best beginning to aspire toward the standard of mainstream literature. In content, stories were initially oriented around adventure, then gadgets, and then science, strict for a time but slowly loosening.

Despite their agreement on past and present, it’s notable that in 1960 there was almost no agreement about the future and what ought to be done about it:

  • “Most of the science fiction I have ever read, including most of what I would classify as good science fiction, has little or no emotional content—and I can see no evidence that improving this situation, which is certainly remediable, would be welcomed by the readers.” — James Blish, 1960

  • “It can only be corrected by putting science back in stories, as we did in the old days of science fiction when practically every story I printed had good science in it. This is what the public today wants and demands.” — Hugo Gernsback, 1960

  • “The great adventure stories of the past are certainly gone from the scene and this should not be. We could have the adventure story back with the better writing demanded today, but the magazine editors are so concerned with their own pet foibles they will not look at the market as a whole but see only their own narrow viewpoint.” — Martin Greenburg, 1960

  • “The popular reader wants to be entertained, and his definition of entertainment is suspense, action, surprise, excitement. He does not like the “literary” story. He does not like satire or essay or parody. He wants a story about a person with whom he can identify himself, who gets in a suspenseful situation and has to fight his way out of it.” — James E. Gunn, 1960

  • The pulp writers can’t make a living any more? Tant pis. They made intelligent readers want to throw up. Anybody who announces that he is a science fiction writer is announcing that he is in damn bad company financially and artistically. You are trying to conduct a post-mortem without a corpse. I would love to provide you with one. I would love to see the expression science fiction butchered this very minute in order that stories with science in them not be identified, in the minds of intelligent readers, with pulpers, beginners, and hacks.” — Kurt Vonnegut, 1960

  • “The paperback field has increased astronomically in recent years and I think it will continue to do so, regardless of how the magazines fare. In other words, we—the reading public—are going to be able to get good science fiction in the future no matter what.” — Gregg Calkins, 1960

  • “Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation? For an answer to this one, I suggest you just look at the original paperbacks which have been published. When you stop vomiting, then rephrase your question.” — Robert Bloch, 1960

  • “For instance, science has ignored a lot of subjects (astrology, witchcraft, etc.) which DO work (I’ve plenty of proof). I’ve always wanted to write a story in which the future United States is run by witchcraft (after all, think of the 50 pentagrams on the flag, and the Pentagon Building wherein “evil forces are summoned” all too darned often. And what about that Fifth Amendment, h’mm?) But it wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s magazines.” — Hannes Bok, 1960

  • “It isn’t science fiction that’s in trouble–it’s fantasy fiction!” — John W. Campbell, Jr, 1960

  • “What can be done? Nothing, I suppose. We can’t shoot Campbell.” — Donald Wollenheim, 1960

OK, I cheated a bit by taking the last quote slightly out of context. But only slightly. Then, as now, there were many complaints about the aesthetic choices of the major short fiction markets, but few specifics…except about the editor of Analog. Except in 1960 the recently renamed Analog was being criticized for its lack of science, this being the heydey of John W. Campbell’s psi obsession.

Today there is no shared understanding of the genre. Where was it twenty years ago? Where is now? People’s answers will differ, for they haven’t read the same stories. In 1960 people at least agreed about what science fiction was, allowing them to productively argue about whether it was good or not. Today we understand science fiction not as a fixed particle in space (if indeed it ever was) but a fuzzy, probabilistic cloud. That may seem like begging the original question, but if it’s hard (maybe even impossible) to really compare the genre to, say, five years ago, I think it’s pretty easy to compare it against 1960. I’m sure there are people out there who will argue 1960 has the better of it, but I think most of us are very pleased with almost every difference:

Kincaid started his essay with an epigram from Yeats that emphasized his theme of decline, but I would rather point to the beginning of the poem:

   Turning and turning in the widening gyre
   The falcon cannot hear the falconer

At one time there might have been a falconer–John W. Campbell or Hugo Gernsback, perhaps–but those days are gone, and the gyre has widened. In that process, science fiction grew from its narrow origins into a genre big enough to include all of those different prescriptions from 1960: science, adventure, literary virtues, psychic powers, and witchcraft. It also includes more and more perspectives that the people of 1960 didn’t even know to ask for, like those of women, minorities, and non-English-speaking cultures. Best of all, it’s a genre supported by technology that makes its extinction impossible until the death of reading itself.

One assumes that John W. Campbell would not like the genre as it exists today, but if you’ll excuse one final quote, he accidentally summarized my thinking in far briefer, pithier language back in 1960: “We’re going better than ever before! First establish that the alleged situation exists! I haven’t found it! Why correct it? What would be more correct than it is?”


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  1. Excellent point. I think most fields see themselves in a state of perpetual crisis. I mean, how many times has the novel been pronounced dead? But even beyond fiction, every form/discipline, etc. seems to have this anxiogenic side of it.

    I’m intrigued, though, by the notion that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Perhaps it’s just because we’re living it, but it does kinda seem like we’re in this interregnum of future-oriented fiction. I know that several authors have expressed a dislike for/distrust of the singularity conceit and are trying to chart a path between the mundane and what could be possible based on what we currently know about our technological capabilities.

  2. I will probably be writing more about the confidence issue, but the short version is that if SF writers have lost confidence in their ability to predict the future, that’s probably because SF’s previous predictions were so inaccurate. Also, what people like Paul Kincaid and me and readers of this blog think are well-worn, cliche futures are still pretty new and exciting to the less well-read.

  3. Heh, Matt. I’m almost done with a piece articulating exactly what your comment mentions. Back off 😉

    Great piece here though. It deserves a second read through.

  4. […] Matthew Hilliard’s “No More Falconer: Science Fiction’s Past and Present“ […]

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