Modern Science Fiction and the Gimme Part 1: On Certain Laws of Science Fiction is the first part of five interconnected essays on ‘modern’ science fiction and fantasy. They are intended to be read as a piece when all five are posted over the next week. This essay started off as an investigation into two aspects of science fiction based on MY memories concerning the field, most of them from the 1960s and ’70s. One was an unwritten rule (the gimme), the other a specialized sub-genre (speculative fiction)
After the first, memory-based draft, I did some research—just to make certain that I was not confusing the issues TOO much and ending up looking like a horse’s arse. I quickly discovered that I had less than total recall and that I clearly had either confused memories or a real misunderstanding regarding my favorite sub-genre. This led to further investigation into several other sub-genres and a need to define them for myself.
Now, this essay may seem like a brief history of the field. It is not! Nor is it intended to contradict anyone else’s version of science fiction and fantasy definitions. As stated, this is an essay based on memory.
As the research continued (I spent a few hours total), my goals expanded. What was intended to be a few pages of recollections turned into twenty-odd manuscript pages! I assembled these into five sections:
Part 1 – On Certain Laws of Science Fiction
Part 2 – On the Rule of the Gimme
Part 3 – On Post-New Wave Speculative Fiction
Part 4 – On Various Genres and the Gimme
Part 5 – On Modern Fantasy and the Gimme
But first, some background: while no one who knows me would consider me conservative in much of anything, I am a bit of a stickler for certain stylistic rules in literature.
In fact, one of my other categories on this blog is titled “Strunkandwhiten It,” in which I rant about the misuse of grammar and punctuation, primarily in the media and in advertising. For the uninitiated, the category is titled after William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, authors of The Elements Of Style.
I have no mouth but I must shout love at the heart of ellison wonderland (a digression)
In science fiction, I have been a stickler about a few opinions that I formed decades ago that may seem trivial to younger readers and to the uninitiated. One regards abbreviations. Since the 1970s, I have willfully suspended my disbelief in Harlan Ellison’s apparent omniscience. I first found him as the editor of Dangerous Visions (probably in 1968 or ’69) and then hunted down most of his other books. How could I resist books titled Ellison Wonderland (1962), I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1967), and The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World (1969)?
While I found the hardbound copies of these books to read at the library, these two paperbacks from the mid 1970s were the first two copies of these titles that I owned. Neat art on both, nyet?
It seemed then as it seems now that his weltenschauung and mine were damn near identical. Add to that a shared incapability of tolerating authority figures and bullies made it seem as though, when reading Ellison, I was reading my own responses to similar experiences. At least that was so when I was reading his legendarily confessional and confrontational introductions, forewords, afterwords, digressions, meanderings, and other commentary.
Due to my exposure to Ellison’s highly opinionated commentary, I do not now, nor have I ever, nor will I ever use the abbreviations ‘sci-fi’ or ‘spec-fic’ or even ‘SF’ or ‘sf’ or any other variation on these shortcuts in print.
However, when quoting other writers, if they use any of these abbreviations—and there is no reason for them not to; it’s a personal choice, after all—then that’s what appears in their quoted material below.
Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
My search for the legendary gimme led to several genre-specific rules—or ‘laws’—which had nothing to do with my topic but are nonetheless included here.Once upon a time, modern science fiction was aimed at a relatively intelligent and articulate group of readers. This effectively limited the potential audience and often confined the field to a literary ghetto—alas, often geek-infested before the concept of the contemporary geek was even conceived.
But it did allow for certain nomenclature and rules to be almost universally recognized and accepted. Three of the most famous examples of rules that became accepted ‘laws’ were conceived by a trio of authors who were associated with the post-Golden Age of Science Fiction but who easily transcended any and all genre limitations during their careers.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were introduced in the short story “Runaround” in 1942. The laws covered almost any event in which a human interacts with a sentient robot and dictates that the robot always acts in the interest of the human. These laws are so commonsensical that they have been adopted and used by countless authors since. They are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In 1950, “Runaround” was collected into I, Robot, a volume of Asimov’s short-stories that is one of the most famous of all science fiction compilations. Its success served as the basis for a series of stories and novels on ‘positronic robots,’ or robots with consciousness. Some off these stories were eventually incorporated into Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, one of the great works in the genre.
Clarke’s Three Laws
Arthur C. Clarke is known to even non-science fiction readers as the co-writer of Stanley Kubrick’s mind-blowing movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). During his career, Clarke suggested three less-than-sacred laws that addressed all forms of science fiction. Like Asimov, Clarke’s Three Laws have been almost universally accepted by other writes in the genre. They are:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
It is the third law that is pertinent to this article and the best known. It is also NOT uniquely Clarke’s: something similar was published in 1942 in the short story “The Sorcerer Of Rhiannon.” There, fantasy author Leigh Brackett had a character say, “Witchcraft to the ignorant, simple science to the learned.” Or, that which appears to be magic to the technologically primitive person may, in fact, merely be science to the technologically advanced person.
Even before that, psychic investigator Charles Fort had stated in his book on paranormal phenomena, Wild Talents (1932), that “a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic.”
Charles Fort’s work has been in and out of prints since his death. In the early 1970s, these two titles were brought back by Ace with suitably pseudo-psychedelic cover art.
Fort used scientific methods to investigate seemingly inexplicable happenings that fell outside of contemporary scientific understanding (called anomalous phenomena). He could be considered a forerunner of Fox Mulder.
Still, it is Clarke’s Third Law that it is almost universally referred to today. An example of that law in a story would be if a 21st century man somehow found himself physically transported one thousand years into the past, to 10th century England.
Once the obstacles of language had been overcome, such items as a digital watch, a cigarette lighter, a pocket calculator, velcro snaps on a backpack, a ballpoint pen, contact lenses, or a modern book or ebook, would appear to be the accessories of a sorcerer. Such non-threatening devices might even get the visitor from the future hanged or burned at the stake!
Sturgeon’s Law works for everything
Probably the most widely known and oft-repeated of all science fiction-related rules is a law that began as a simple statement of fact and not a law at all. In defending science fiction as literature in 1958, author Theodore ‘Ted’ Sturgeon acknowledged, “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”
His point was that science fiction is neither a lesser nor greater field of literary endeavor than any other genre of literature because the majority of all books are mediocre at best. He called this Sturgeon’s Revelation.
He had another quip that he called Sturgeon’s Law: “Nothing is always absolutely so.” Ironically, Mr. Sturgeon’s revelation is now known as a law while his law is largely forgotten. Hence we have the almost ubiquitous Sturgeons Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
What is ‘modern science fiction’ and when did it begin?
I refer to ‘modern science fiction’ throughout this essay. The word modern is an adjective that means “of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past : contemporary” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of a period extending from a relevant remote past to the present time” (Merriam-Webster Online). That is, it is relative.
When the word ‘modern’ is used in conjunction with ‘science fiction,’ it can mean several things, which I will address here rather briefly.
For you argumentative types, I have titled the following sub-sections with the definite article “a” (as in “a golden age”) and not with “the” (as in “the golden age”). That means the statements are tentative and definitely NOT definitive.
A first golden age of science fiction
The first time the term ‘modern science fiction’ has any real meaning to us is the period in which the genre broke with their almost exclusive association with the pulps of the pre-WWII era. Something resembling modernity began when John W. Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. That he had new ideas was immediately evident: the magazine was quickly retitled Astounding Science Fiction.
A typical cover from a copy of Astounding Stories (pre-Campbell 1936 issue) from the “golden age of science fiction” would be interpreted as either retro or satirical by a modern reader.
With his willingness to hire and mentor young authors, Campbell ushered in what is referred to as the Golden Age of Science Fiction (with capital letters). This was a period from late 1930s into the late ’40s. Like the Golden Age of comic books, it was centered around the war years and saw the field gain wider public acceptance as many new and interesting stories were published in magazines like Analog.
In his first few months at the helm, Campbell purchased for publication the first stories of Lester del Rey, A.E.van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon! According to Isaac Asimov, one of his early pupils:
“He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny-dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet.”
So then, one could argue that during this period, science fiction had matured somewhat.
A second golden age of science fiction
An argument can be made that the 1950s was the true golden age of the genre because paperback publishers discovered that there was a nearly insatiable market for both collections of previously published short stories and also for full-length novels. The publishing of a novel or two allowed many writers to quit their day-jobs and become full-time writers.
During this time, Hollywood also discovered that a market for inexpensively made science fiction movies was almost as demanding for product. Unfortunately, with few exceptions (like George Pal’s The Time Machine), most of these films were low-budget ‘B’s (and calling many of them B-films is giving them far more credit than they deserve).
While sales success was evident, it is more difficult to argue that these years were the birthplace of any variation on the genre that could be termed ‘modern’ beyond that which had already occurred. I say that despite the brilliance of the writers associated with this era!
A third golden age of science fiction
Or ‘modern science fiction’ can be traced to the New Wave of the late 1960s, when editors such as Michael Moorcock in the UK and Judith Merril and Harlan Ellison in the US ushered in a golden horde of new young writers. These men—and, for the first time, a noticeable number of women—were influenced by Freud and Jung, Joyce and Kerouac, the Surrealists and the Beats, mysticism and atheism, the Beatles and Dylan, Viet Nam and civil rights, and marijuana and LSD. For me and my peer group, this was the beginning of our modern science fiction.
This period addressed a number of adult-oriented issues that had been left on the sidelines by previous generations of writers. Whereas the older writers seemed to be a combination of middle-of-the-road Republicans (yes, they once existed) and Democrats and the occasional Libertarian (such as Poul Anderson, whose brand of Libertarianism would make him a liberal Democrat today), many of the New Wavers were openly progressive, well beyond the norm of the liberals of the time.
Notable among many writers was a great questioning of authority, especially regarding the seeming never-ending war in Viet Nam and the personal freedoms of sex and consciousness-expansion.
So then, one could argue that during this period, science fiction developed aspects of both a more worldly and an otherworldly maturity, thereby becoming truly modern.
A fourth golden age of science fiction
A current era of modernity may be traced to the advent of Star Wars in 1977 and the resurrection of Star Trek as a movie in 1979. While a lot of writers have produced a lot of great fiction since then—and one innovative sub-genre was created with cyberpunk—the overall effect of those two big Hollywood properties was to step backwards to the pre-Campbell era.
With the rash of science fiction movies and television series—and I include my faves, Firefly and Serenity—combined with superhero comic books, movies, video games, and Magic cards, the whole of the field in the past thirty years seems to have been trivialized while being lifted from its marginalized cultural ghetto.
I would be remiss in my obligation to my readers if I did not take this opportunity to suggest that you visit your local library and borrow the complete Firefly television series (all fourteen episodes) and then treat yourself the Serenity, a movie I described as “perhaps the best action-science fiction movie ever” as I walked out of the theater in 2005.
Much of what passes as science fiction is so in name only: the two aforementioned movie series are known as ‘space operas’—or as my friend Michael Walker prefers, “an old Errol Flynn movie with some science fiction trappings.”
That is, in terms of genre maturity, these films and others of their ilk are a return to the fiction that was replaced by the original Golden Age of Science Fiction. Politely, it is science fiction for people who know nothing about science fiction as literature. Only as spectacle. Not so politely, it is science fiction for young adults, not actual adults.
Not that I am condemning them as entertainment! They are as enjoyable as all get-out—I take nothing away from them as adventuresome entertainment (hell, when I put on my Akubra hat and my beat-up leather flight-jacket, guess who I look like?)—but nonetheless a huge step backwards.
So then, one could argue that during this period (the last 35 years), science fiction had demodernized. And, for fans who don’t actually read science fiction literature, it is this stuff that defines science fiction for them. I deal with this again later in this essay . . .
HEADER: The image at the top of the page is the top of the September 194 issue of Astounding that rightly boasted of the inclusion of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” which is one of the finest short stories in any genre form the 20th century.