modern science fiction and the gimme part 1 – on certain laws of science fiction

Es­ti­mated reading time is 13 min­utes.

THIS IS THE FIRST 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.


EllisonHarlan TheBeastThatShouted 500 copy

The first hard­cover edi­tion of Harlan El­lison’s The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World was pub­lished by the Sci­ence Fic­tion Book Club in 1969. This is the same cover art that was used on the orig­inal pa­per­back edi­tion by Avon Books in 1968.

Shout love in the heart of ellison wonderland

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)?

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.


EllisonHarlan IHaveNoMouth 600

First pa­per­back printing of Harlan El­lison’s I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream from Pyramid Books (1967).

The 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.


FortCharles CompleteBooks 600

Charles Fort’s four books have been in and out of print as hard­covers and pa­per­backs for decades. sev­eral pub­lishers have col­lected the four into one volume, such as Dover’s The Com­plete Books Of Charles Fort (1975).

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 writers 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 someday 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.”

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!


AmazingStories 1 April 1926 600

The first mag­a­zine de­voted ex­clu­sively to science-fiction was Amazing Stores from Hugo Gerns­back’s Ex­per­i­menter Pub­lishing. Reaching news­stands in early 1926, it helped start a new genre of pub­li­ca­tions with low budgets—especially writer’s pay—now re­ferred to as pulp fiction.

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.”


SturgeonTheodore photo flowers 600

Using the same stan­dards that cat­e­go­rize 90% of sci­ence fic­tion as trash, crud, or crap, it can be ar­gued that 90% of film, lit­er­a­ture, con­sumer goods, etc., is crap. In other words, the claim that 90% of sci­ence fic­tion is crap is ul­ti­mately un­in­for­ma­tive, be­cause sci­ence fic­tion con­forms to the same trends of quality as all other art-forms.” (Theodore Sturgeon)

What is ‘modern science fiction’?

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.

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.


AstoundingStories 1 January1930 600

The first issue of As­tounding Sto­ries of Super-Science was dated Jan­uary 1930 and pub­lished by William Clayton. In 1933, the mag­a­zine was sold to Street & Smith, where it be­came the leading mag­a­zine in the nascent pulp sci­ence fic­tion field. At the end of 1937, John H. Camp­bell took over ed­i­to­rial du­ties and the pe­riod that fol­lowed is often re­ferred to as the Golden Age of Sci­ence Fic­tion. The title was short­ened to As­tounding Sto­ries and even­tu­ally Analog Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fact.

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!


EllisonHarlan TheBeastThatShouted Signet 1974 60 0

This pa­per­back edi­tion of Harlan El­lison’s The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World was pub­lished by Signet Books in 1974. Note how five years of Nixon, Vietnam, Kent Sate, COINTELPRO, etc. had af­fected the art.

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.



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.

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 back­ward 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.

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 backward.

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 . . .


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