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A Guided Tour through the Imaginative Universe

Science-fiction genealogists have often laid claims to an illustrious lineage; partly to play down SF's humble birth in the pulp magazines of the 1920s, partly out of delight in finding old, sometimes obscure examples of their beloved literature. The most important precursors of SF are imaginary voyages: travellers' tales, utopias, and satires, such as the works of Sir John Mandeville, St. Thomas More, and Dean Jonathan Swift.

Science fiction inhabits the literary descendents of those imaginary countries whose "distance alone conceals them," which dotted the far reaches of this earth before geographical knowledge caught up with them, sending their heirs into the future and the far reaches of space. Sheer exoticism dominates modern SF, but Swiftian satire occasionally appears, and the utopian tradition continues -- mainly in the works of feminists, who keep cranking out utopias every bit as numerous and inhuman and boring as their communist predecessors of centuries past. The Moon-voyage, from Lucian of Samosata on down through the centuries, is the archetypal proto-SF tradition, but until Jules Verne it was just a special case of the imaginary voyage.

The first example of true SF -- if we define it as "the fiction of science," the imaginative exploration of the possibilities of science -- is Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. Bacon, a philosopher, a statesman, and one of the founders of the scientific-technological enterprise, write this utopia precisely to expound the marvels in store for mankind if it embraced his philosophy of empirical and applied science.

Only in the nineteenth century, after the Industrial Revolution began to transform the Western world, did science and technology really impress themselves on daily life and the literary imagination. Only now, for instance, could Verne write a Moon-voyage involving real technology, possible (though impractical) at the time he wrote: shooting a projectile out of a gigantic cannon. (His only, albeit major, mistake was to suppose that the projectile could carry passengers.) Only now do we really find works which, even before the invention of the name, are unmistakable and indisputable SF, and are also of literary, rather than antiquarian, interest to contemporary readers. Of these, the most valuable and important are the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne, and the "scientific romances" of H. G. Wells.

All of Verne's works are what we could today call "techno-thrillers," of the Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy type: taut adventure/suspense stories involving technology presently available or likely in the very near future. Thus he could pass easily from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, whose real hero is the submarine (speculative in his day), to Around the World in 80 Days, whose real hero is the various means of novel, but actually-existing transportation that allow his phlegmatic Englishman to win his famous wager.

The problem with these "techno-thrillers" is that the technology they thrill to is now long since obsolete; even at the time of writing, they were only borderline SF. Their greatest importance is the attitude they conveyed: the sheer excitement of technological innovation.

In contrast, Wells -- at least in his best works -- simply pulled his contrivances out of his hat, rather than wearing us down by trying to show us how his contrivances could actually work, this very day, if we tried them out. The general quality of his writing was also much higher than Verne's. His major works are The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The First Men in the Moon. These deathless classics appeared in the brief span of 1895-1901, accompanied and followed by minor works that are only of interest to the truly devoted.

The second great practitioner of the new art was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose first and greatest novel, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful writing career, which saw nine and a half sequels to his first effort, along with several novels set on Venus, one in the Moon, and several more in Pellucidar, the world "at the earth's core." Burroughs' work oscillated between true SF and fantasy: for instance, he got his hero to Mars by astral projection, and the inner world of Pellucidar, though weirdly compelling, was ludicrous even in terms of the science of his time. His more popular Tarzan books are straightforward adventure stories, though usually involving strange countries and exotic races never to be found on any map. If you like exciting adventures in exotic settings, Burroughs is your man.

The third great practitioner of the new art was William Olaf Stapledon. Though totally unknown outside the science-fictional microcosm, within it he is universally recognized as the greatest science-fiction writer of all time -- the epitome of everything SF can be and should be. This unobtrusive, mild-mannered, Liverpudlian philosopher exploded onto the literary scene like a supernova with Last and First Men in 1930.

Last and First Men quietly, calmly, gravely recounts the history of eighteen (18) successive species of mankind, over the next two billion (2,000,000,000) years, following their migrations (driven by cosmic catastrophes), first from Earth to Venus, and then from Venus to Neptune, before the Sun explodes and man becomes extinct. I cannot resist giving you a sample of Stapledon's majestic, sonorous, yet lucidly simple prose:

I have told man's story up to a point about half-way from his origin to his annihilation. Behind lies the vast span which includes the whole Terrestrial and Venerian ages, with all their slow fluctuations of darkness and enlightenment. Ahead lies the Neptunian age, equally long, equally tragic perhaps, but more diverse, and in its last phase incomparably more brilliant. It would not be profitable to recount the history of man on Neptune on the scale of the preceding chronicle. Very much of it would be incomprehensible to terrestrials, and much of it repeats again and again, in the many Neptunian modes, themes that we have already observed in the Terrestrial or Venerian movements of the human symphony. To appreciate fully the range and subtlety of the great living epic, we ought, no doubt, to dwell on its every movement with the same faithful care. But this is impossible to any human mind. We can but attend to significant phrases, here and there, and hope to capture some fragmentary hint of its vast intricate form. And for the readers of this book, who are themselves tremors in the opening bars of the music, it is best that I should dwell chiefly on things near to them, even at the cost of ignoring much that is in fact greater. (Chapter XIV, part I)

How (you may ask) could anyone top that? Perhaps Stapledon asked himself that question. Anyway he did, in Star Maker (1937), by writing the history of the entire universe.

It matters not the tiniest bit that Stapledon's science and social-political ideas are both hopelessly out-of-date. For the sheer stupendousness of his imagination, in both scope and detail, and for the perfect beauty of his prose style, Stapledon surely ranks as one of the greatest authors in the English language -- if not the greatest.

Besides his twin masterpieces, which defy categorization, Stapledon also wrote novels: Odd John, Sirius, The Flames. By anyone else, perhaps, they might be considered first-rate; but they are inevitably diminished by comparison, and can only be recommended to the truly devout.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, SF was, if not born, at least christened when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926. This opened the immensely productive era of magazine SF, which saw the appearance of most of the great names of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp, Lester del Rey, Edmond Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Murray Leinster (who actually began his career before 1926), H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, Eric Frank Russell, Clifford Simak, E. E. "Doc" Smith, A. E. van Vogt, and Jack Williamson, to name a few.

American SF was, on the whole, less polished, but more optimistic, than British SF. Wells wrote a vivid scene of a far-future Earth under a dying Sun into The Time Machine; few if any Americans could match it for style, but neither would they echo his sense of melancholy, his use of the Sun's dying as a symbol of ultimate defeat. Americans -- until recently -- would say, "If the Sun burns out, we'll make a new Sun!" With know-how and gumption, we could conquer the universe.

This cheerful, energetic, perhaps naive sensibility makes up for many literary deficiencies. To someone coming of age in a time of narcissism, slackness, egalitarian levelling, corrosive relativism, and general failure of nerve, the heroic age of SF (roughly 1926-1962) is a whole other world -- a strange, bright, clean world where men were men, women were women, and not even the sky was the limit. Ironically, we have to look to the past to recover the future.

American SF was intended to be entertainment, not art -- which is probably just as well, considering what usually passes for art in the twentieth century. If it was not very ambitious, neither was it very pretentious. If it was all too prone to the vice of commercialism -- cheap, vulgar, slipshod hackwork, produced solely to meet the market's demands -- this was tempered by the fact that SF was, for a long time, such a poorly-paying market that someone interested only in money could find better remuneration almost anywhere else. People wrote SF because they believed in it and loved it; but sometimes, admittedly, their enthusiasm exceeded their talent.

For obvious reasons, the magazines favored the shorter forms of fiction. Unfortunately, the full-length novel is the form best suited for book publication -- at least, in the opinion of book publishers. (Presumably there are sound commercial reasons for this, but as a book purchaser, it baffles and frustrates me.) Even so, much of the literary wealth of the magazines has been preserved between hard covers, primarily collections of stories by the more important writers. Good anthologies are hard to come by nowadays, though quite a few appeared in the first wave of SF book-publishing; these preserve many rare gems by obscure names who, perhaps, only ever published a single story. Among the best are Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, and Groff Conklin's Omnibus of Science Fiction, Best of Science Fiction, and Treasury of Science Fiction. Original anthologies -- i.e., those with stories commissioned to order for the anthology -- are fairly common today, but rarely contain anything worth reading.

The most famous SF writers, then and now, inside or outside SF, are the so-called "Big Three" -- Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein; Bradbury, who produced two unusually poetic SF classics (The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451) before going mainstream; and Lovecraft, who, though usually considered a fantasist, gradually abandoned old-fashioned supernatural horrors in favor of extraterrestrial horrors (as in The Colour out of Space). Sadly, the works of their less-recognized contemporaries are getting harder and harder to find.

Asimov's reputation is largely owed to his "Foundation" series, republished as the trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation; his robot stories, first collected in I, Robot and later in The Complete Robot; and the much-anthologized story Nightfall. Clarke's reputation is owed mainly to Childhood's End and 2001; on the whole he is the weakest of the three, mainly because he has never been able to write a true novel -- only short stories cobbled together and padded out with (quite well-written) didactic material. However, he is a first-rate short-story writer, and at his best he is unparalleled in his evocation of the beauty and awesomeness of the universe.

The best of the three is Heinlein, who cheerfully asserted that he only wrote for money; but he was gifted with a Mozartian fluency of written expression. His most notable contribution was the idea of setting his stories (some of them, at least) in a common background -- a Future History, analogous to Balzac's "Human Comedy" except that the background itself, as well as the characters and stories, is imaginary. These stories were collected in The Past Through Tomorrow. In the late '40s, Heinlein began an excellent series of "juvenile" novels that are highly recommended for readers of all ages: the best are Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Starman Jones, The Star Beast, Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, and Podkayne of Mars. His most serious "adult" novel of this period was Starship Troopers (not to be confused with the movie of the same title). In the '60s, alas, his work deteriorated. Starting with Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), his sexual obsessions gradually took over, turning his SF into weirdly verbose pornography.

George O. Smith was minor writer of the '40s, but a personal favorite of mine, who represents in purest form the can-do ethos of American SF. His most important works are a serious of stories collected as Venus Equilateral, later expanded as The Complete Venus Equilateral. His heroes are engineers on a space-station in the orbit of Venus, who solve technical problems with all the flair of cinematic swashbucklers. Initially quite didactic, the series becomes livelier and more imaginative as the stories recede farther and farther from present-day science.

A comparative handful of significant new writers appeared in the '50s: Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Gordon Dickson, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, Frank Herbert, Keith Laumer, Jack Vance. Of these, Dick has received by far the most attention from academic critics, with some justification, while Vance is clearly the best, by any standard.

Phil Dick has few if any rivals as the oddest of all the characters who have ever written SF (most of whom, in fact, have been as stolidly bourgeois in their daily lives as they are wildly exotic in their imaginations). His life-story, recounted in Lawrence Sutin's Divine Invasions, is nearly as strange as any SF story. The twin themes he pursued obsessively throughout his work are "What is reality?" and "What does it mean to be human?" His most notable novels are Eye in the Sky (my personal favorite), The Man in the High Castle (which won the Hugo award for best novel of the year), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was cruelly mutilated to make the movie Blade Runner -- whose title, by the way, was taken from a completely unrelated novel by Alan Nourse), Ubik, and VALIS (which is partly autobiographical).

Philip Jose Farmer's tour de force is the series that began with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, in which the whole human race, from the Stone Age through the twentieth century, is resurrected on an artificial planet by a far-future supercivilization. Nearly as impressive is the World of Tiers series, which features a whole series of artificial worlds ruled by the decadent Lords of a pre-human supercivilization.

Keith Laumer's most accessible works are his stories and novels of Jame Retief: varying mixtures of action/adventure, screwball comedy, and political satire, whose hero is a junior diplomat who wages his own style of sharp-witted, two-fisted diplomacy in a cold war between the human race and the alien Groaci. Among his more serious works are The Infinite Cage, one of the best treatments of the psychic-powers theme, and A Plague of Demons, which gives an unusual twist to the alien-invasion theme.

Jack Vance is the most accomplished literary craftsman, and the most distinctive literary voice, in American SF. Except for a few very early and very late works, his writing is consistently first-rate. His main theme is the bewildering variety of cultures that emerge on isolated planets in the distant future; his novels typically deal with external or internal challenges to these colorful, tradition-bound, aristocratic societies. If any of his gemlike works stand out above the rest, they are the novel Maske: Thaery, and the Hugo-winning novelette The Last Castle. I can also specially recommend his Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes.

The '60s were revolutionary, in more ways than one. It was the age of interplanetary exploration, if only by robotic proxy, and we finally, actually put men on the Moon. Both the romance and didacticism were diminished as space travel, so long prophesied, became a reality and then a commonplace. And as cold fact finally caught up with extravagant fiction, the real Solar system turned out to be far less hospitable to life and human habitation than SF writers had assumed.

This was also the time of the "New Wave," a self-conscious and self-congratulatory avant-garde movement. The New-Wavers repudiated entertainment in favor of pretentious artiness, especially the idolization of "experimentation" for its own sake. Their "experiments" included willful obscurity, obscenity, antiheroism, facile pessimism, morbid psychology, images of entropy, mindless hostility to science and technology, and disintegration and chaos generally.

A good example of this new, more "artistic" SF is Beyond Apollo, by Barry Malzberg. The narrator, the only survivor of the first expedition to Venus, is insane. Past, present and hallucination are all jumbled together, so one never really knows what's going on, and soon one doesn't care.

Still, it must be admitted that some of those associated with the "New Wave" did contribute some interesting and worthwhile work, notably M. John Harrison and John Sladek. Michael Moorcock himself, the prime heresiarch of the New Wave, is a testimony to the pernicious influence of the art/entertainment dichotomy, and the greater merit of mere entertainment: everything worth reading he wrote deliberately as a potboiler, while his "serious" novels are so much pretentious drivel. Roger Zelazny only intermittently committed the modernist excesses that were fashionable when he began publishing; his best and most popular works, Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels (an unusual fantasy/SF hybrid), are at once traditional and original. One might also mention George Alec Effinger, with his unique, engagingly quirky absurdism, best displayed in such collections as Irrational Numbers and Dirty Tricks.

The '60s also finally and totally demolished traditional inhibitions about sex. Before then, American SF had been prudish even by the standards of the time. There was one attempt to publish a "spicy" SF magazine, which lasted a single issue. To be sure, even the best magazines often decorated themselves with pictures of shapely young women in cellophane spacesuits; but in most of the stories, even the most chaste love-interest was totally absent, and in the rest it usually had the simplicity, banality, and inexplicitness of fairy-tale romance. Ever since, sex has appeared in the texts at least as often as it had in all those tawdry old cover-illustrations, and more graphically. It is true that the range of speculation was expanded somewhat, but serious and intelligent exploration of the theme is much rarer than merely gratuitous sexual content, which often seems inescapable. SF had been a sexless, cerebral creature; but it compensated for this (if "compensate" is the right word) with a boyish innocence and enthusiasm.

Before the '60s, politics usually did not impinge on SF, and to the extent that it did, Left and Right were about evenly matched. Then, here as in the larger society, there was a lurch to the Left, which was associated with, but not limited to, the New Wave. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, rarely indulged in "experimentation" for the sake of "experimentation"; politics aside, she was rather like, say, Poul Anderson -- a competent writer, but not very original or memorable. But she was a weird Jungian-Taoist-socialist-feminist, which made her the academics' favorite SF writer. Her "best" (i.e., most ideologically fashionable) works are The Left Hand of Darkness, a mediocre novel dealing with a world of genetically-engineered androgynous freaks, and The Dispossessed: an ambiguous Utopia, in which one is hard-pressed to see any ambiguity at all -- her utopia is a totally nightmarish egalitarian/collectivist/anarchist hell-world.

Before Le Guin (and others like her, some of them worse -- mostly feminists), it never occurred to anyone to judge SF itself by any party line. Even Left-leaning SF writers were too free-spirited to bow down to any literary commissars. Le Guin set herself up as one, castigating SF for its "brainless regressivism," for all the world like some Big Sister denouncing "oldthink" and "crimethink." Nowadays, alas, she would have very little to complain about.

Despite or because of all these changes, there were only two really first-rate new writers to appear in the '60s: Roger Zelazny and Larry Niven. Niven continued the old tradition of good, solid storytelling, now enlivened with casual sex (he assumes that the future belongs to the Californicators). His best and most important work is a future-history of the Heinlein type, including (among others) the collection Tales of Known Space and the novels Protector, World of Ptavvs, and Ringworld. In collaboration with Jerry Pournelle, he wrote the classic Mote in God's Eye, the definitive story of first contact with an alien civilization.

The '70s were another disappointing decade; again, only two really first-rate new writers appeared, Jack L. Chalker and Orson Scott Card. Both, moreover, subsequently belied their early promise and really substantial achievements. One might also add James P. Blaylock, though he is really a fantasist. Only three of his novels (The Digging Leviathan, Homunculus, and Lord Kelvin's Machine) stroll along the boundary between fantasy and SF, but they are so good -- especially The Digging Leviathan -- that I cannot resist mentioning them.

Chalker's stature almost exclusively derives from the series he began with Midnight at the Well of Souls, which is a monument to the glory and shame of SF: amazing, awesome, stupendous ideas that never achieve complete realization. Chalker, more than anyone else, approached the imaginative and philosophical scope of Olaf Stapledon; but the series is marred by clumsy writing, repetitiveness, and over-emphasis on adventure and suspense (which would, of course, be perfectly appropriate for a subject of less magnitude).

Card showed early promise as a literary craftsman, avoiding the twin vices of "arty" pretentiousness and commercial hackwork; his writing also showed an obsession with pain, mutilation, and death that gave it a peculiar but compelling intensity. His most important SF works are Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, but subsequent installments in the saga only showed the apparent exhaustion of his talent.

It is perhaps too early to judge the crop of new writers that emerged in the '80s and '90s, but they are not very promising. The only one who stood out was David Brin, who made an impressive debut with his first novel, Sundiver, and its sequels Startide Rising and The Uplift War; but instead of improving with practice, he seems to have forgotten everything he ever knew about the craft of writing.

Looking over the current prospect, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of SF. All the great writers are dead or exhausted, and none of the new ones seem to have anything to say. Still, a literary tradition two centuries old can survive a generation of doldrums. SF has been an enormous and wonderfully varied field of literature, and anyone who explores it will find riches beyond compare.

2000 by Karl Jahn

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