Authors: Robert Reginald
Copyright © 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2005 by Robert Reginald
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For my favorite people- and dog-sitter,
Σταυρουλα η Βιβλιοθηκαρια
and, as always, for
Μαρια η Αγαπητη
Lifesavers in every sense of the word
OOZE FROM THE MUSE
I am not the same person that I was when the First Edition of
was published in November of 1996. The intervening years have dealt harshly with me and mine, leaving me wondering, at times, what awful things could possibly happen to us next. I will not try to enumerate the tragedies or occasional joys that Mary and I encountered during the recent past. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as Brother Theophilus (and my early Jesuit teachers) might say, and it is better not to dwell overmuch on such matters.
These random reflections of my writing existence, these miscellaneous essays penned over an authorial career that has now spanned some thirty-five years, were written mostly for cold hard cash, on assignment, to specifications provided by the respective publishers of the original pieces. Some have been modified here (a few rather severely), both to update them and to correct misstatements or misapprehensions on my part; but I have generally resisted the temptation to rework them in their entirety. I’ve tried to preserve the flavor of what I wrote back then, in that previous life, when I was young and full of vim and willing to tackle any exercise that might come my way.
The essays lack (for the most part) any philosophical underpinnings or academic jargon, first because they were not penned for such purposes or for such publications, and also because I have always preferred to adopt the tone of the delighted reader who wants to share his discoveries and excavations in literature with his interested friends (
., all of you). To me, “academese” only gets in the way of such communication, and should therefore be discarded by any intelligent soul; and I make the presumption that anyone reading these words
falls within the latter category!
I have added a few new autobiographical pieces written especially for this new edition, reflecting certain of the travails of the past few years, and perhaps providing the reader with some insight into my life and work. The contrast with the less personal essays reprinted elsewhere in the volume is deliberate: I can write both ways, when and if I choose.
Throughout my career, I have mostly worked at lengths longer than the accumulation of these short pieces might suggest to the casual reader. This is merely a reflection of where and when I was then receiving contracts for writing projects. Sometimes circumstances do change: in the past five years, Mary and I penned some 13,000 literary obituaries for various reference works published by the Gale Group, again, because that’s just where our major assignments made their appearance during that half-decade. Hidden almost entirely from view is the extensive editorial service that I’ve performed over the past three decades for a half dozen publishers, editing (and sometimes rewriting) at least 650 books
My frequent collaborator and chief editor and dearest friend in all these matters, Mary A. Burgess, has also been my partner in life these past twenty-eight years; she deserves much credit for whatever quality is present here, for she has always been my first and most critical reader, in the kindest sense of that word. She saw most of this work in its infancy, and made innumerable suggestions to improve it, some of which I actually had the good sense to heed. What I would have done without her constant kindness, advice, and comfort, particularly during the horrific events of the past year, I just don’t know.
Grazie, cara mia, grazie
(Prof. Michael Burgess)
San Bernardino, California
22 November 2003-3 August 2004
have added to this Second Edition my first semi-professionally published essay, released just after my twentieth birthday, both to provide contrast with my later, more polished work, and to show my thinking at this early date. The history of science fiction related here is much oversimplified and even erroneous in parts, and I have removed several paragraphs of obvious anachronisms discussing then-current editorial policies of then-current editors near the end of the piece, as well as the now obsolete bibliography. Although the essay as a whole is somewhat turgid, I was still amused to find my earlier self predicting virtual reality.
This essay was written to provide information concerning a phenomenon unique to our times—science fiction. Science fiction is literature, and as such is universal in patronage and scope. Since its inception some forty years ago, the genre has also been universally maligned, and only now is the field receiving the critical attention it deserves. There yet exists, however, an abysmal ignorance of what science fiction is, and, more importantly, of what it attempts to do. The best answer to this problem would be wide reading in the field; unfortunately, this is not often practical—hence this partial and abridged solution. Since it attempts to relate a definition and history of this genre, this paper necessarily contains much oversimplification. The best and most readable sections have been boiled down from excellent science fiction critics and historians, especially Judith Merril, Sam Moskowitz, Kingsley Amis, and Algis Budrys; the author must lay claim to the obscure and difficult. The author also regrets that space was insufficient to provide the examples and clarifications he felt necessary.
True science fiction possesses five readily observable qualities:
1. Science fiction is postulational, speculating on any person or thing under any conceivable (or inconceivable) conditions. Early science fiction wondered about strange places and occurrences, and man’s reactions to their challenges. Later, the physical sciences and future technology were minutely explored, especially as those fields affected human society. The 1950s saw the examination of how the social sciences altered social structures when applied to and through the individual. The modern sub-genre, The New Wave, critically probes man the individual, and those disciplines closest to him, the fine arts. During all four periods of science fiction development, man was the proper subject for speculation.
2. Speculation is found in all literature; yet a peculiarity of the genre facilitates the easy interweaving of speculative themes. Science fiction possesses what I call a “foreign atmosphere,” a certain strangeness in background which sets off the genre from mainstream literature. Wherever or whenever the plot takes place, it is pervaded with an eerie quality, a distinguishing air of the weird: perhaps an exotic setting in otherwhen or on a far-off world, or an alien culture or the aliens themselves, a man with unusual powers, a strange intervention produced by or producing unearthly effects, a catastrophe with freakish overtones, or simply an odd and unexplained occurrence in nature.
3. Science fiction stories must have, at the very least, a framework of science and technology, pseudo or otherwise. The importance of technology in the individual story varies from total emphasis (as in much of the science fiction of the 1940s) to almost no emphasis (in much of modern SF technology forms a shadowy background setting for a story which could occur at any place or time, including our own).
4. In four decades of science fiction literature, a standard set of rules, plots, devices, and vocabulary have cloaked the field in a shroud of cliquishness, obscurity, and isolationism. Readers are expected to understand such devices as time travel, interstellar travel (whether faster-than-light, inter-dimensional, or sub-light), the three laws of robotics, and so on. Science fiction authors, most of them one-time fans, have long since digested these plots, and spew them back at random throughout their own works. A basic background knowledge of the field is required for intelligent reading of science fiction.
5. Science fiction is logical in its speculations. Here the line is drawn between it and fantasy, which flouts logic. A science fiction world is based on reasonable extrapolations of the current situation; a fantasy world is derived solely from the imagination.
The definition which best incorporates the majority of these five elements is that of Sam Moskowitz, who states that:
Science fiction is that branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy
I distinguish five other genres in imaginative literature: gothic horror, science fiction, weird fiction, heroic fantasy, and high fantasy. Before proceeding further, it is necessary to define and separate them so that no confusion may arise when they are later referred to.
Heroic fantasy: that branch of imaginative literature in which a hero of superhuman or at least superior qualities moves through a created, ordered, earth-like, and primitive world to conquer totally and alone the major challenge (often evil) of that world.
Science fantasy: identical with heroic fantasy, except that the world is unearthly in culture and fauna, decadent, and usually contains elements of scientific instruments and powers intermingled with barbaric rites and weapons.
Weird fiction: that branch whose major theme is to produce by means of background a horrifying impact on our innermost instincts, and to touch our basic human reactions with revulsion.
Gothic horror: that branch of imaginative literature in which a heroine, trapped by evil within a medieval, legendary, Poe-like house or castle, is rescued after almost losing her life or soul, and then lives happily ever after with her rescuer. This is the soap opera of imaginative literature.
High fantasy: there are several types. One is that in which a hero or set of heroes overcomes the evil staining an otherwise idyllic created world. A second type is similar to science fiction except in not attempting to make its speculations credible. A third, postulated type, eternal fantasy, would occur if the cosmos became an eternal unreality, totally unlimited in time and space; such a story would become pure unending escape, whether the story emphasis is on character (where the reader himself becomes the story in an everlasting fantasy, to the exclusion of all reality), or on scenery (where the reader becomes an infinite set of characters in an unchanging world, a world which sweeps away the real world).
To give the reader a better idea of the differences and relationships between these fields, I have postulated a framework on which one may place these tags. Imagine a line on which every type of prose fiction has a point. Bisect the line: the top half is realistic or biographical literature, the lower imaginative literature. Each genre is distinguished and hung on this pole according to the time-nature of the implied world of its type of ideal story. This requires some explanation.
Every story is an implicit part of a great cycle or
of stories. If the emphasis of a particular tale is on the hero, then the implied
or framework for further such tales is that character’s life. If on the other hand the story is built around the background (minimizing the importance of the characters), then the implied world is the setting. In many cases the main character and background are evenly balanced; here one must consider the implicit whole to be a combination of the two.
I place the genres on the line of literature according to the time sense of their respective
. The world of the autobiography, the top terminus of the line, is the life of its author; the ideal life-story would start with the author’s birth and end with his death. This genre thus has a definite
beginning and end, and is limited in time. All biographical literature is defined in this way.
The ideal genre of imaginative literature would be the projected, non-existent field of eternal fantasy, with its pure, unending escape. Genres are placed into the category of imaginative literature if the time-senses of the
are infinite in some way, lacking beginning, middle, or end.
Between biographical literature and imaginative literature is a shadowy area possessing a
time-sense of uncertain length. Much of the science fiction of the 1940s and ‘50s falls into this category. Each genre is ranked by story type according to how closely it approximates the ideal genres (autobiography and eternal fantasy) of each half of the line.
The history of modern science fiction begins with the founding of the first science fiction magazine,
, in 1926. It was only then that writers found an outlet for their work, and science fiction gained a general circulation among the public. Three forerunners appeared in the fifty years preceding this date, and they had an overwhelming influence on the later course of the field. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard all left groups of writers, almost schools, who followed their styles of writing.
Haggard, although not a science fiction writer, wrote adventures set in strange locales far from civilization. His works are permeated with lost races and cultures, strange people and devices, and reincarnation. Pulp science fiction followed his lead. Verne attempted to predict and postulate the wonders of tomorrow through analysis and projection of today’s science into the future. He stressed the scientific accuracy of his inventions, laying emphasis on the logical development of the machine and technology. Technological science fiction carries on his work in this area. Wells concentrated on society rather than the machine. To him technology and marvelous inventions were movable backgrounds for his main interest, development and change in human groups. His work is the prototype for sociological science fiction.
Early issues of
consisted mainly of reprints of semi-science fictional works originally published in scattered magazines and book collections during the first two decades of the century. Hugo Gernsback, its founder and publisher, was forced to develop an entirely new kind of writer; professionals of the time, regarding the field as juvenile, refused to submit material. Consequently, the first decade of science fiction history was filled with a succession of hack amateurs, most of whom fell before the onslaught of quality writing in the late 1930s.
The major form of the first quarter century of science fiction history (to about 1950) was the short story. Science fiction writers had but one publishing outlet, the magazines, and these tended to concentrate on shorter subjects. Novels, when published, were serialized. Both short stories and longer works were simple in plot and Victorian in outlook. Indeed, writing standards in general were on a par with those of the 1890s. Following the lead of Haggard (who was a Victorian writer), nearly all of these stories were fabulous adventures set in strange locales, whether on an unexplored region of the earth, another planet, or another world via time or inter-dimensional travel. Explanations for scientific devices used in these tales were almost always glossed over; few pulp writers had scientific backgrounds. All of the stories were imbued with a childish “sense of wonder.” For this reason, the SF of this period is often looked upon with nostalgia, but sheer lack of readability prevents much of it from ever being reprinted.
A late and curious development of the pulp period was the space opera, consisting of novel and multi-novel length melodramas on a truly cosmic level. This form bombards the reader with such a rapidly expanding scale of distances and forces that, having no time to readjust himself to any one frame of reference, he is left stunned and numb from its creative impact. As in many other Victorian works, this sub-genre makes an extremely sharp distinction between good and evil. The hero, totally good, always encounters totally evil aliens seeking to destroy or enslave the human race; in the end, these creatures, being unreformable by nature, are wiped out to the last individual. The “it’s us or them” attitude always prevails. Human villains exist for character conflict; women occur only to provide a simple love interest for the hero. A curious trait of the space opera is that, while a hero is always present, he is rarely the most notable character—the show is often stolen by the villain. The most successful writer of space operas was the founder of the sub-genre, E. E. “Doc” Smith. His famous tetralogy,
The Skylark Series
, opens with an invention of a means of space travel, and closes playing with universes and forces infinitesimal in magnitude.
Stanley G. Weinbaum inaugurated the modern period of science fiction with a series of stories published in the pulps in 1934-1935. His innovations merely followed the professional mainstream guides for literature in the 1930s: slick writing, a light, jaunty style, good characterizations, an excellent scientific background for his stories, and a treatment of alien life as wholly ahuman creatures.
Weinbaum’s writing practices were sustained and enlarged upon by John W. Campbell, Jr., whose appointment to the editorial chair of
in 1937 signaled the founding of the second magazine school. Campbell demanded a high degree of sophistication for even the average story, in both style and idea. Science fiction became characterized by indirection is presentation of scientific material. To carry out his ideas, Campbell raised a new crop of young, professional authors with scientific educations; and in the following decade these writers (the best were Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A. E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon) examined virtually every conceivable aspect of future technology and science. During these ten years Campbell alone dictated the course of the field, publishing every major science fiction work of the 1940s (with the exception of the stories of Ray Bradbury, who evolved separately from mainstream science fiction). He lost this sphere of influence when H. L. Gold founded