A few months ago, David Hartwell called me on the phone and asked me if I would consider writing an essay celebrating the virtues and accomplishments of the best SF editors of the past—which then might usefully be compared with all that isn't happening, editorially speaking, in science fiction these days.
My guess is that David thought I would be an appropriate candidate for this job because he knows that I've done some thinking about the role in SF history that has been played by editors like Sam Merwin and H. L. Gold, Fred Pohl and Don Wollheim. And because I haven't been actively involved with the SF marketplace for more than a decade while Cory and I were at work on The World Beyond the Hill perhaps my eye might see the present state of things all the more freshly.
And, truth to tell, when I look around me today I don't immediately spot an active editor who has, say, the taste and ambition of a Terry Carr in the days of the original Ace Specials, let alone one who can offer the vision and leadership of the Golden Age John Campbell. Nowhere do I see a magazine or a line of books so creatively hot that I feel left out not to be a part of the action.
So I told David that I would have a shot at writing what he wanted. And I have. Try as I might, however, I haven't been able to convince the piece to march. The more that I've considered the premise, the less sufficient a proposition it has seemed to me.
As I think about past SF, l am able to spot many editors who display qualities that I truly admire, such as an eye for new talent, or an appreciation of science fiction history, or the courage to buy and print an unconventional story, or the ability to attract an audience and make it want to participate. But useful and even necessary as these editors and their efforts appear to me, it is not as prime movers, but as part of an ongoing scene or context in which they figured as one active factor among many. Editors alone didn't make the good times good.
Moreover, if something is wrong with science fiction as it is today, and I do keep bumping into indications that there is, it doesn't seem to be anything that the advent of an editorial knight in shining armor—even one who was the sum of all the best qualities of Hugo Gernsback, Groff Conklin, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Boucher & McComas, and Cele Goldsmith Lalli—could be sufficient to cure. Times and conditions have changed, and these days SF editors are kept on shorter leashes than they used to be. And all the taste and knowledge and vision in the world can hardly be expected to count for much if what the editor's employer is hiring isn't vision, knowledge and taste, but someone to serve as an acquisitions agent for more-of-the-same.
So let's not bother with comparing editors then and editors now. Instead of that, why don't we take David's original request as a first indication—that the most dedicated and resilient SF editor of the last twenty years has feelings of uneasiness about the present state of SF editing. Let's also treat my own inability to spot a center of action exciting enough for me to long to participate in it as another symptom—a writer's-eye view of what indeed might ultimately be the same problem, but seen from another angle and differently emphasized. And then let's talk about the larger question: What is it that isn't right with SF these days?
What was right with SF when it was right was a sense of participation, creative possibility, movement and cumulation. Writers viewed themselves and each other as confederates in a wonderful game of mutual comment, criticism through better example, and can-you-top-this? A general conviction prevailed that SF was doing necessary work, that it was constantly improving and bettering itself, and that it was moving toward an indefinable higher destiny.
To be sure, these former days were not a time of comfort or perfection. There were many aspects of writing SF which could make any person with even a trace of worldly ambition feel restive.
SF only existed then as a little side pocket of pulp magazine publishing. To the extent that it was considered at all, it was thought of as unrealistic, excessive, juvenile and ephemeral. No one could devote himself to writing the stuff unless he was eager enough to work like a dog and humble enough to live like a hermit, or else had an alternate source of income. You had to love SF to want to write it.
And yet, when taken as a mental macrocosm, an imaginal world apart into which outsiders rarely peered, SF had a large degree of freedom. Anything could go on there. Anything might be said there. SF was so culturally peripheral and so financially marginal that nobody on the outside cared.
Because the genre was as strange to the average editor as it was to the average guy on the street, those who found their way into science fiction editing were more often than not people who knew and cared for SF who had actively sought the opportunity. And if they weren't, they tended to be individuals of more than common tolerance and flexibility.
Though each of the magazines might have its own slant and personality, it can be said that taken as a whole the SF pulps were a place of continuity, of dialog, and of community. From the viewpoint of a later time, the letter columns of the old SF magazines look like nothing so much as a proving ground for the writers and editors of coming years.
There weren't so few places of publication that an SF writer who persevered couldn't get his work into print somewhere, if not immediately. By the early Fifties, with the appearance of F&SF and Galaxy and the Ballantine Originals, there was even room for other-than-Campbellian modes of approach to writing SF seriously. At the same time, there was a coherence to the ongoing discourse. There weren't so many magazines and books that an earnest reader couldn't keep up with all the SF that was being published.
SF might at times be crude, naïve and insular—but those were only defects of youth. Far more important was that for anyone who had the eyes to see, it was a literary hot spot, a wonderful creative action center displaying seemingly boundless scope and energy.
Occasionally, outside observers like Seymour Krim in his book Visions of a Nearsighted Cannoneer might notice the power and potential of SF, and, taking it for granted as a given thing, sneer at mere hapless science fiction writers for not having made better use of their chances. But drool after the treasure though they might, these literary bloods would never have a clue as to how to effectively approach the writing of SF themselves.
In the meantime, actual participants in the ongoing conceptual unfolding of SF were not the sort of people who looked on SF as theirs to exploit, but rather were writers who viewed themselves as instruments of SF. What it really was no one could say—though many tried. Where it was going no one could presume to tell. It was a pure onrushing creative thatness which was there to be served by the best knowledge and truest imaginings a writer could bring forth.
Let me tell you how things could seem to a master SF writer in these former days:
After the Nebula Banquet in 1969, Cory and I caught a car ride from New York to Cambridge with Isaac Asimov. The occasion is commemorated in the second volume of Asimov's autobiography with a note saying that he had a good time. We had a good time, too, as I remember it, sitting together in the back seat asking questions about one thing and another and listening to Asimov talk.
He hadn't been writing SF seriously for a long while. This was before he returned to the game with The Gods Themselves, followed by the elaboration of his long-lapsed robot and Foundation series. These fundamental modern science fiction projects had been set aside incomplete in the mid-Fifties when Asimov began devoting his primary energies to the opportunities which were then opening to him in popular science writing.
The production of science fiction stories had been extremely useful to Asimov as a youngster. It had paid for his education. It had helped to ease his way through graduate school, and it had opened doors of employment for him. Lastly it had served as the springboard from which he had launched the wonderful new career he'd invented for himself as explainer of science to a generation of young Americans.
But even though Asimov had always assumed he was writing science fiction for practical reasons, and those reasons now lay far behind him, during that ride to Boston he declared with considerable vehemence that he had a feeling that he ought to be writing SF. As though he believed that SF was something higher than himself to which he owed a debt and a duty.
And yet—Asimov also said—he wasn't at all sure that he still knew how to write SF. Not as it was being done in these days of Zelazny and Delany, the Ace Science Fiction Specials, and the New Wave. Such was his experience of SF that he expected the conceptual center of science fiction to have moved on a considerable distance while his attention had been otherwise occupied, and he wasn't sure that it would be possible to catch up.
Now, how that turned out, we all know. There had been less change in SF while Asimov had been gone than he expected. Much of the change was stylistic rather than conceptual, and therefore was not essential to SF as Asimov understood it. Another part consisted of rebellions against Empires Galactic and Campbellian which actually depended on Asimov's old conceptions even while they were attempting to do battle with them. When Asimov took up science fiction again, it was to find himself still at the center of attention for a large audience he had unknowingly accumulated a little at a time over the years which was ready and eager to see him fulfill his promises and bring the implicit patterns of his great imaginal lifework to completion.
And, indeed, as we further know, the passage of another twenty years still has not altered Asimov's centrality or diminished his huge popularity, even though these days much of the work he does is seemingly produced by rote or with collaborators who do the bulk of the labor.
What should be noted, however, is that 1969 was about as late as an SF writer might be expected to think in terms of service owed to SF, or assume the existence of continuing conceptual development in SF, let alone believe that working at the leading edge of the field or fulfilling incomplete fictive actions were matters of the highest possible obligation.
The alteration in expectation can be illustrated by the change that took place in Roger Zelazny's work around 1970. During the Sixties, Zelazny was the brightest young talent on the scene. He showed that SF could be written with a stylistic dash and dazzle that it had never had before, not even from Sturgeon or Bester. And he was bountifully inventive, with no two stories alike. After 1970, however, Zelazny's work became more hastily written, less reflective, and far less ambitious. He concentrated on a kind of verbal comic-bookery that had always been potential in his writing, and was mostly content to turn out Standard Zelazny Product.
I was impudent (and disappointed) enough to ask Zelazny about the change once late at night at an SF convention hotel room party. He waved at his sleeping children and said, "I had a living to make."
But Zelazny was not alone in taking a new attitude toward SF. Around the turn of the Seventies, a number of things began to happen which caused writers to look at SF with different eyes.
One event was the launching of the Ace Science Fiction Specials in 1968. With that, the creative focus of SF may be said to have shifted from the short story and, even more, the novelette, to the novel, and at the same time from the magazine to the original paperback book. As an emblem of the change, I can remember teaching an SF course at Cornell University in the early Seventies and having a student tell me that he saw no point in paying attention to the magazines because anything which appeared in them that was any good would shortly be published in paperback and thereby save him the bother of figuring out for himself which was which.
By this time, the SF magazines were an anachronism anyway—the last much-degenerated survivors of an earlier publishing form which once had encompassed fiction of every kind. By hanging on this way when the rest did not, the magazines might be said to have demonstrated the special viability of SF literature. But now they themselves were only living fossils.
As the magazines became clearly secondary, there was a loss of the old sense of coherence, continuity and community. The new paperback books were atomistic, individual, self-contained expressions. They weren't multi-vocal, interactive places of creative play. There was also a reduction in freedom to experiment, since the writing of one safe and sure novel might now replace a dozen shorter attempts to be creatively adventurous.
Further marking this transition was the death in 1971 of the great magazine editor, John Campbell, at the age of only 61. It was he who had been the heart and soul of the image of science fiction as a literature of change and experiment. His presence, his authority, and his example, whether they were accepted or rejected, had seemed eternal facts. But now he was gone from the scene and things were no longer the same.
Who was prepared to succeed him as a keeper of SF's sense of direction? Nobody.
Was it possible at all for the editor of a line of paperbacks to be as consciously directional as Campbell had once been with his magazine? If for a time the Ace Specials seemed to give promise that a constantly creative publishing program was possible in the new format, the promise soon faded. After a time, the books weren't as genuinely special as they had been in the beginning, the sales fell off and the line was killed.
The reason that the Ace Specials failed may have been that they were done on the cheap. Although presented as particularly ambitious and out-of-the-ordinary work, they were paid for at standard minimal rates. After the desks and closets out of which the early Specials came forth to be recognized by Terry Carr were empty, the advances Ace offered were insufficient to support the real-time production of anything but hackwork, so hackwork was mostly what was forthcoming.
The lesson taken by the SF publishing industry was not that ambitious work needs and deserves financial support, but rather that there was no point and precious little profit in serious science fiction. And in the years since SF has only erratically been allowed to show what it might be like if it were to attempt to once again be deliberately exploratory, experimental and challenging.
Upsetting tendencies such as these were not in the interests of the new masters of American publishing. From 1970 or so, previously independent paperback and hardcover publishing houses began to be bought up by ever-larger corporate conglomerates. Bookmen were replaced in positions of authority by accountants. Increasingly, books became looked upon as one more product line to be judged in terms of unit volume, speed of turnover, and margin of profit.
The new caretakers of the printed word took SF as they found it. Its evolution, its purposefulness, and its ability to command devotion meant nothing at all to them. All that mattered was how much moo there was in the cow. Could you make a good profit from SF?
It turned out that you could. If you knew how to properly exploit it, SF was a very saleable line of goods.
Not only had the audience for SF grown through the years, but a much larger number of people had had an adolescent affair with Ray Bradbury, or gotten hooked on hobbits, or dipped into the Foundation books, or grokked Stranger in a Strange Land. And now writers like Heinlein and Herbert, Asimov and McCaffrey were starting to appear on the hardcover bestseller lists.
At the same time, TV shows like Star Trek and movies like Star Wars were beginning to draw upon the body of written SF as freely available source material. (Should I tell you what minute of screentime in Star Wars I've always thought was derived from my Villiers books?) The meaning and directionality of written SF were largely ignored, while its props and surface features and most familiar gestures were translated into simplified but more accessible visual form for a broad new popular audience.
Many new readers might come to SF as a result, but this expanded audience cared nothing about SF's origins or what larger work those who invented and developed it had thought they were engaged upon. All they were sure of was that they wanted more of what they knew they liked. Star Trek books, say.
Out of this developed a kind of half-substitute for the old magazine community—self-contained imaginary mini-realities which the like-minded might share. Endlessly. As many times as the crank handle could be turned to chunk out another unit of consumption.
If anyone at all might read SF now, if only a little bit, so now anyone at all was presumed competent to edit it. You didn't have to like it particularly. All that was necessary was to observe what was currently most successful, and then put out more stuff like that.
Publishers hungry for bestseller success threw gobs of money after their hopes. In consequence, a Robert Heinlein, say, might now receive 200 or even 400 times the advance for his next book as the beginning SF writer, or even journeyman. What was expected from the superstar from this money was not some new stretch of the imagination, as in former times, but rather another helping of that for which he was already appreciated.
Meantime, writers at the low end of the scale could not help but notice the extreme disparity in reward for turning out SF. Especially since to some degree the biddable writers of SF were being paid more money than their work could possibly earn, and the field hands of SF were being paid less than their work was worth to make up the difference.
Some of these toilers perceived that their best hope of ever getting ahead themselves was to imitate what was already popular but limited in its availability, like the work of J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. Others aimed to become a brand name and fabricate a precisely-calculated, popularly-aimed, cookie-cutter series that might appeal to its own special audience.
The trend to a two-tier system of imitative and formulaic SF publishing—on the one hand, overpaid marquee names doing the standard turns for which they were known and loved, and on the other, underpaid drudges manufacturing easily digestible, same-o same-o, cheese product—was only exacerbated by a late-Seventies Supreme Court decision. Though this involved the accounting practices of a tool-and-die manufacturer, one of its most significant effects was that profit-minded publishers could no longer economically keep backlist titles in stock.
As a consequence, much of the intellectual past was cut loose from commercial publishing and left to the likes of university publishers and small presses to tend. If anything significant was lost, that was just too bad. In a time when greed seemed good, lightening ship in the name of the bottom line was only the natural, inevitable thing to do.
Reissues of any but the most successful books and authors became much less common. A mid-rank career SF writer could no longer depend on the regular reprinting of his titles as a reliable source of income.
I know one such writer from the old dog-and-hermit days who'd had to work and work for the privilege of appearing in book rather than magazine form. In the early Seventies, he told me that half his income was then coming from reprints. He was working as he could on an unobvious but very ambitious long-term project, hidden away beneath the disguise of random paperback covers. The true scope of his work hadn't as yet been noticed, but he was determined to finish it no matter how long it took him.
But with the new standards and priorities—which included huge print runs at the top but smaller ones than heretofore at the bottom—a writer like this no longer had either editorial or financial support for his grand but subtle ambitions. More than ever before, the emphasis was on instant recognizability (what the dealmakers who produce one-star movies call "high concept"), the new thing of the moment, and the quickest possible turnover. Anything else was a dead fish.
At both the top and bottom of SF publishing there was imitation of imitation, and nary a thought that any alternative might be desirable, let alone necessary. More SF than ever previous was now being published—to the point that Arthur C. Clarke could publicly remark on the impossibility of any longer hoping to keep up with it all. But at the same time, a smaller fraction than ever before was challenging or innovative. The vast bulk was mere product.
In the old days, it had been possible for Charles Harness, a patent attorney who wrote some SF on the side, to spend two full years on one story, The Paradox Men, and throw into it every idea that occurred to him during that time—and feel pride and delight in having done so. Now, however, to a writer with a living to make, an approach like this could only seem extravagant and foolhardy. Why put that kind of strain on the reader? Why toss away good ideas so casually? Better to make everybody happy and use the same time to turn out half-a-dozen perfectly satisfactory and much less demanding screenplay novelizations or series extenders.
There was little demand for SF written in the way and for the reasons that SF had formerly been written. Love of SF as marvelous, mysterious, even sacred—an awesome vessel of power, something higher which demanded devotion and service—was no longer in the picture.
Now, mind you, this isn't the present moment I'm talking about. It's the way things were getting to be a dozen years ago. That's as late as I was keeping track.
The state of SF publishing as it was then was Wonderland to me. I still held the old set of attitudes toward SF, but they were clashing ever harder with the day-to-day actualities. I have memories of a kindly-disposed graybearded editor taking Cory and me up to his convention hotel room and spending an evening of his time painstakingly explaining the realities to us, and how hard I found it to take in that his bosses actually would prefer to pull a cheaty deal than make a square one, print a book on paper toweling than do an honest job of manufacture, or publish a piece of tripe than a book that was a work for the ages.
And that was even before his publisher was absorbed by a corporate octopus with interests in tobacco, hospitals, golf courses and peanut butter. Not to mention two other publishing imprints.
As things were at that time, it seemed that I had two options available to me. One was to go through yet another painful round in which I spent years working on a novel and then further years struggling to get it published only to have it issued as another package of sliced bologna with a four-week shelf life. The other was to try to figure out for myself what the nature of the magic had been when SF was still magical, where it had flown, and how it might be contacted again.
Cory and I quit the marketplace for the woods soon after that evening in the hotel room, and began to gradually work our way through the observations of past SF that are presented in The World Beyond the Hill. But while this was going on, all through the Eighties, I fell out of contact with current SF. I no longer had lunch with editors. I let my Locus subscription lapse. I didn't thumb through the SF magazines on the newsstand to read the book reviews—or follow the magazines when they were exiled from the newsstands to comic book stores. I didn't even know who might be up for the Hugo or Nebula this year, or who'd won it last year.
Now, however, with The World Beyond the Hill behind me, I find myself with another decision to make. Should I pick up the novel that I've been working at with my left hand over the years, which is SF the way I'd like to write it—at least this time—and finish it? Is there a place these days in SF publishing for what I do? Or should I just go back to the woods and concentrate on the next book Cory and I have to write on the different forms that have been taken by the mythic imagination?
Here are a few of the impressions of the present state of things that I've gathered while I've been trying to make up my mind:
So, what is it that is wrong with SF?
Even after giving the question much time and thought, I don't have one final answer. I have a lot of different possible answers, or partial answers, or nonanswers, all depending on your point of view. Let me try them out on you in bunches and see what they suggest.
Maybe the problem is that one way or another SF is played out. It has had its day. It's done its stuff and nothing more can be expected from it.
Once SF was the Pulp Kid, a youthful creature of the streets and byways, down and dirty but free. Ah, but then SF grew up to be Heavyweight Pulp Fiction Champion of the World, a Bad Bestseller, and the Grossest Thing in Hollywood. Success became a habit and SF became a prisoner of expectation. Now these are the days of Rimbaud "Rocky" Starwalker XIII, and SF, grown fat and stupid, is just going through the motions—still skipping rope, running up great flights of steps, and climbing into the ring against monsters of iniquity because that is what the folks pay to see. But the fire is out. It's all ritual now.
Or how about this as an alternative: The true role of SF was to do one specific job, and that was to put the psychic priorities in place that led to our landing on the Moon and using it as a camera platform for photos showing Earth as a mottled blue-and-white marble hanging in space. But luring humanity into attaining this holistic perspective of our planetary situation was all the useful work that SF was actually meant to do. Since 1969, SF has been a completed thing, a used vessel—like a space capsule at the Smithsonian in and out of which people can clamber, but which has no active function any more.
Or perhaps the problem is that SF has reached its conceptual limits. Back in the Golden Age, the parameters of a great imaginal universe of space and time were set forth within which all subsequent SF has been written. Heinlein placed structure around future time. Asimov dreamed of human galactic empires rising and falling and then rising again. Van Vogt imagined higher orders of human becoming. And de Camp suggested that our dominion might even extend to alternate histories and parallel universes. But now these great science-fictional visions of human possibility have not merely been sketched, but worked out in detail by these writers and many others. And all this stuff has then been repeated by younger writers who read the originals while growing up and found them wonderful. And then all of it has been repeated yet again by still another generation—which no longer perceives the old wonder here, but only utility, or tablets of stone, or the sad and sorry way-things-have-to-be.
Then again, maybe it's the underlying unexamined premises of the modern science fiction paradigm that are bankrupt:
Consider the means by which the successes imagined in the Golden Age classics were attained, which at the time appeared to be realistic and pragmatic, if not downright neat. These include many practices whose legitimacy we have since grown to doubt—such as political dirty tricks, disinformation, black propaganda and assassination. (Yes, I am talking about de Camp and Asimov, Heinlein and van Vogt. Look at their stories and see.) Can we disavow these methods and still in good conscience lay claim to what was gained, imaginatively speaking, by their use? Or were all of science fiction's great "successes" morally compromised?
Furthermore, in these new times, the goals of modern science fiction, such as the establishment of human hegemony over stars numbering in the hundred billion, may no longer appear either as possible or as desirable as they once did, but rather much too embarrassingly like a contemporary chauvinistic America attempting to impose its will and values on all the people of the world. To put it nicely, modem science fiction has been a literature of adolescent dreams, grand and trashy, and it may just be suffering now from the limitations and excesses of its own perpetual immaturity.
Not least, the current truths of science, from astronomy and physics to psychology, have changed and moved on a considerable distance from the constructions of reality that are embedded in the fundamental conceptions of modern SF, so that the whole universe as envisioned in Golden Age SF and assumed by science fiction ever since has now become both a scientific and an ontological fossil—a new form of fantasy, if you will.
Now, whichever of these different visions of SF-in-exhaustion seems most probable to you will surely depend on what set of specs you use to look at SF and what purpose you think it serves: Is SF just a publishing category that has gotten lucky and found its maximally exploitable form? Or has SF been an advertisement for the space program, an imaginary carrot luring us on toward our adventures in rocketry? Or is SF really a literature of ideas, a mode of presentation for a set of concepts and images which have now been examined and played with and extended in every possible way until there is no more fun left in the toy? Or is SF the most recent manifestation of living myth, the perennial combination of best current knowledge and the creative imagination, which again and again must be reconceived as needs and belief and circumstances alter?
What you decide the problem is with SF and how you believe it should be addressed will vary hugely according to which of these points of view you adopt. So choose carefully.
But then, maybe the problem is not with SF at all. Maybe it really lies with them, the cold-hearted, lightless, materialistic bastards.
Which is to say that it isn't SF alone which is being abused by the present masters of publishing. It is anything and everything that can be abused. As a ready example, in a recent issue of The Nation I find an editorial complaining that a novel written by some hireling has just been published under the byline of an author who died back in 1986 (a practice, I may say, which isn't all that different from some of the shenanigans that have lately been going on in SF marketing).
The Nation says: "That this incident aroused so little protest is a sad commentary on the state of the arts, although perhaps it is to be expected in a conglomerated culture where marketing is the test of success. Authors are demeaned when publishers regard them as something to be canned and sold like peas after they're dead. Readers are demeaned when they are exploited as a manipulable mass of glazed-eyed page-turners. And the entire culture is degraded when publishers care more about their balance sheets than the integrity of the written word."
Integrity? A word without much meaning these days. And the worst part is that these men of the bottom line are like the exploiters of oil resources who see the answer to our energy problems in more and better exploitation of oil resources. They are living off their assets rather than providing for the future, never bothering to notice that the degradation of the written word is only too likely to lead to a coming day when no one any longer has reason to read.
And SF in particular is one self-renewing resource which is no longer being replenished. The giants of modern science fiction (on whom be peace) are now dead, or all too soon will be. And what they produced out of their original thought and imagination and response to felt need cannot be casually duplicated by latter-day hacks—any more, say, than it would be possible for some enterprising young word merchant to now produce an early Wells scientific romance with the insight and power of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. SF which is the real thing cannot be faked. Neither does it mimic the past.
Once true SF—which is always new—is no longer being produced, soon enough the endless imitations, categories, formulas and template series will lose their groundedness, and begin to wear thin. And when this sci-fi loses its audience, you may expect it to be tossed onto the junkheap as no longer profitable like everything else in this culture which has been marketed to death, such as the proliferating TV Westerns of the Sixties, or the thrice-debased Matt Helm movies, or plastic Beatles knock-offs like The Monkees, or one-trick Gomers like Jim Nabors. Excuse me for the age of these examples—should I say instead Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Madonna, inflatable sneakers and cyberpunk?
But once we say this, it is clear that it isn't just book publishers alone who are pursuing the sort of policies that are responsible for SF being run into the ground. It is every arm of the American distraction industry. Whatever popular artist you listen to and wherever you look in the American cultural marketplace, the story is exactly the same: imitative, rancid TV shows chase after the secret of success of other imitative and rancid TV shows ahead of them on the production line; a film director of considerable promise like Alan Rudolph complains about the impossibility of finding the money in Hollywood to make movies of the kind he keeps longing to do; the Rolling Stones are paid hugely to impersonate the Rolling Stones once more and a Paul Simon tour is sponsored by American Express Gold Card, while young musicians have to fit themselves into a standard mold or starve, and the loving exuberance that originally animated rock'n'roll and made it dangerous to the unloving and unlovable is long forgotten.
It is apparent that the writers and editors who dream that SF could once again be an active center of creation if only it were allowed to be are not alone in their frustration. Under the tyranny of the bottom line, the slow, the careful, the subtle, the small, the thoughtful, the imaginative, the artistic, the original and the profound are all seen as lacking what really counts and excluded. And if life without them should seem only a shadow of what it might otherwise be, so what? Eat your yummy cheese product, dear, and don't choke, and then smile just like you really mean it.
Or as I just overheard Eric Bogosian saying on Radio Free America—my favorite radio station when I can pick it up: "The system collects artists' minds. It sleeps better at night knowing the best and brightest are dead from the neck up."
Ultimately, it isn't merely the structure and expectations of the pop culture biz which are currently making things so difficult for art and truth. Entertainment is just one more acquisition of the new diversified corporate empires. And the values which have been imposed on SF commercially, to its great harm creatively, are the values generally observed by business America in these days of mergers as a substitute for innovation, shoddy goods, junk bonds, avoidance of liability, sale of assets, fiscal failure, golden parachutes, and former workers living in the streets.
It might seem to some that during the past twenty years or so, business has been permitted to buy up America and trash it for its cash value. All the former structures and institutions and modes of relationship that went to making our society civil have been replaced by monetary transactions. And with personal love, care and involvement out of the picture, everything in the country is either being looted or left to deteriorate.
In short, it isn't just the makers of popular art who have been having their troubles lately, but all those people whose lives have been reduced to a bare bones existence of working and consuming, rutting and sleeping, until they can no longer remember that there was ever any other way to live. It could be, folks, that these are Psychic Hard Times.
Bad times—as Heinlein was so ready to remind us—do periodically happen. But they also unhappen.
I think of the story of the king who felt the need for a reminding factor, something that when he was happy would make him aware of sadness, and when he was sad would make him happy. His advisors eventually brought him a ring and requested him to look at what was written inside the band. There inscribed it said, "This too shall pass."
If SF has been taken away from us and turned into sci-fi, perhaps a time will yet come when the greedheads cast it off again as valueless and it can be recovered by those who truly care about it.
But then, you ask, what if all this manipulativeness, repetition, falsity and greed isn't just a passing phase, the expectable excesses attendant upon twenty years of overindulgence of corporate interests by a succession of Republican administrations. What if it is America itself that is rotten with its own success, with the hour of its complete ascendance no more than the eve of its entire downfall? By this reading, the U.S. is now enjoying its brief opportunity to be egregiously ignorant, arrogant and greedy in the traditional manner of dominant powers in the moment before they crash out and are replaced in the spotlight by some fresher, more vital center of culture and influence.
If this last is the case, then maybe the exploitation of SF by America, Inc. should be thought of as only appropriate, since the dubious values that are now being forced upon American culture by its owners and proprietors are none other than the same questionable means which the conceptual edifice of modern SF first used to build itself. Effectively speaking, if brainwashing of the populace was the foundation upon which the Covenant in Heinlein's Future History was originally established, can we truly object now if in the late Twentieth Century world which the Future History helped to bring into being SF itself is turned into one more convenient instrument of popular exploitation and control? As they say, what goes around, comes around.
Once more, we are brought back to the suggestion that to some degree SF's problems may be SF's own fault. If you imagine yourself relying on the wrong sort of means, you may find them changing into a monster and savaging you—a one-time SF short story cliché that Damon Knight and James Blish used to carry on against back in the Fifties.
But there is a saving grace. If indeed we really do believe in the power of SF, and in all that John Campbell once taught us about its nature and uses, we aren't dead and done. After all, half of the point of the Golden Age in the first place was to break us free of the crippling confines of images of inevitable human decline and death such as those Campbell himself had presented in stories like "Twilight" and "Night."
SF is the literature of change, including self-change, Campbell said. ("Does evolution apply to Astounding Stories? Certainly.") And the remedy for all seemingly intractable problems is in our hands. All that is necessary is to ask the right questions. ("Nature is a blabbermouth.") That's all.
So instead of assuming that what we loved in SF is a dead thing, or cursing the bastards who done SF, and America, and maybe the whole damned planet, let's look around and see if perhaps the answer to where the magic of SF has gone might lie elsewhere than where we have been looking.
Where is the Tao now? Is that the proper question?
It is possible that science fiction has become so creatively self-constricted that the heat and light of mythic truth have had to find another vehicle. That might be another form of fiction. As an example, it could be that the recent revival of horror fiction—which deals in far more psychic and far less spiritual terms than former horror fiction—is a contemporary equivalent of the rationalization and modernization of the imagination that went on under the guise of horror in Weird Tales sixty-five years ago. And it could also be that out of some fragment or aspect of the new horror fiction may evolve attitudes and arguments that will prove as significant to a new SF to come as those in "Who Goes There?" and Unknown were to the making of modem science fiction.
Or, if we are indeed in a transition to post-literate times, it may be that the mythic power has moved on, too, into new media. Computer games are both generally overlooked and intellectually discounted as an area of artistic activity, for example, but incredible creative ferment is going on there currently. Once heavy on biff and bang, these interactive adventures are becoming increasingly complex, ambitious, artistic and even magical. Among recent titles, I note the cyberpunkish Rise of the Dragon, which has striking comic book style graphics; Space 1889, which not only has you interacting with Rasputin and Buffalo Bill, but traveling in an ether-powered ship to Venus and Atlantis; and Martian Dreams, a reality trip influenced by Phil Dick and M.C. Escher.
Crude and derivative as these game/stories may appear now, there is as yet no way of guessing how truly marvelous they will ultimately become. Among already existing games there are many science fiction and fantasy quests, and the goal that they are ultimately seeking is the sense of wonder. Just like written SF in the old days. It is no accident that Adam doesn't want to grow up to write science fiction as his father did, but rather to create this new kind of story.
But perhaps it isn't necessary to abandon written SF as a lost cause. I, for one, still have an attachment to the word as a medium that I don't think I will ever shake. And it seems to me no accident that whenever written SF has been translated into some other medium—radio program, TV show, movie or computer game—the result, however good it may be, has invariably been less meaningful than the original.
It could be that the basis for a revised and renewed SF is already emerging, all but unrecognized for what it actually is within the great gross flab of sci-fi publishing. Perhaps in times to come, these last twenty years will actually look like a very interesting period indeed—the great years when Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty and Robert Anton Wilson (say) were establishing the conceptual basis for a new redaction of SF very different in kind from wretched old modern science fiction. If something like this proves so, then the trouble and pain these writers had to go through in order to write their stories and actually get them published might appear only a trivial footnote next to the reality and the power of the work itself.
And yet, a few writers out of the whole barrel—who were sometimes able to cope with the impossible cross-purposes inherent in dealing with the conventional publishing industry and more often were not—aren't exactly a model solution for the problems of being a creative SF writer today. It isn't altogether an accident that Phil Dick has gotten incredibly more respectable and successful since he has been dead than he ever was when he was a difficult-to-handle living presence. If he were alive today, he might still be fishing with gum for change through sidewalk gratings.
Perhaps what is necessary to break SF free of sci-fl bondage is alternative modes of publication. It could be that if some way were devised for SF to be supported by the right sort of editors, by a knowledgeable audience, and by fair recompense that a great gush of pent-up work of ambition would come forth from writers who lack R. A. Lafferty's incredible endurance in the face of discouragement and have held back from true creative effort out of need to make a living and lack of markets.
Something like this has happened at least three times in SF. In the late Thirties, writers like Clifford Simak who wanted to write science fiction more seriously than it had been written, but didn't try because there was no market for it, responded enthusiastically to the advent of John Campbell as editor of Astounding. And the resulting outburst of creativity was the Golden Age, the most successful blend of editorial vision, effective author support, and audience involvement that SF has ever seen.
After World War II, however, doubt about the ability of people to deal with the demon of atomic power caused Campbell to radically narrow his editorial focus, in particular where strange and possibly threatening mental states were concerned. The backlog of creative work that Campbell could no longer bring himself to recognize was inherited by H.L. Gold and made the first few years of his new magazine Galaxy the most consistently brilliant run that any SF magazine was ever to have. The anthology The Galaxy Reader wasn't restricted to selecting a few particularly good stories to represent the magazine—it was able to reprint the entire contents (serials excepted) of issue after issue after issue. But Gold was a habitual messer with his writers' copy, and eventually he drove the most creative of them away and his magazine became a more ordinary place of publication.
And lastly, as we already know, at the end of the Sixties the Ace Specials of Terry Carr reaped the harvest of the secret yearnings of writers of the time to produce serious SF at novel length. And the result—until Ace cut its own throat—was yet another wonderful creative explosion.
Who knows what power might come forth from SF again if a circle of authors and an informed audience and a proper vehicle could once again be brought together in one place? The real trick then would be to keep the creativity going for more than a couple of hot years.
But where is the basis for such an alternative to the Gresham's law of the current science fiction marketplace, in which counterfeit work drives out the genuine article? I can point to three embryonic possibilities.
Not too long ago, I was approached by a subscription publisher who wanted to do an edition of Rite of Passage bound in gold and ermine for a series of classic SF books it issues. Wow! Gold and ermine! That's pretty impressive. Of course, they don't pay much. I settled for $1000 and sixty-five copies of the book. But it will make such a pretty addition to my brag shelf, and it will provide me with copies of the book again to sell or give away, and it doesn't compete with publication in any more conventional form. So I said yes.
Subscription bookselling sidesteps the usual limitations of mass market bookstore and newsstand SF publishing. It is exactly targeted, so much less waste is involved. It can safely publish good books and only good books—and in what passes in this degenerate age for well-made editions, too.
But yet I do have my doubts. In a real sense, the program is fundamentally parasitic rather than creative. It only pays a small user fee for work that it did nothing to bring into existence. And it doesn't really appeal to an audience that wants SF to be new and different so much as to shelf-dressers who opt for science fiction editions rather than another line of collectibles.
This publisher puts out a parallel series of new SF novels autographed by their authors. But I can't believe that any of these books were actually influenced in their writing by the encouragement and support of the publishing program. Because it eliminates some of the interferences between writer and audience, there seems promise in subscription publishing, but it doesn't appear that this version, with its combination of snob appeal to the book buyer and shortchanging-cum-flattery of the author can lead very far toward the renewal of SF creativity.
Another glimmering of alternative possibility may lie in the interest the Book of the Month club and its alter ego the Quality Paperback Book Club have lately been showing in science fiction. The selections they have offered have varied widely. There have been safe and easy choices like new editions of classic books with high recognizability like Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz. There have been less obvious but worthy selections like a collection of Theodore Sturgeon novels and the public presentation of Sturgeon at last as a writer of Style and Substance. But there has also been the breathless offering of The Book of a Million Pages, a tired, bloated new Poul Anderson novel that is something less than the best work he has ever produced.
It seems apparent that as yet these gigantic direct marketing book distributors (that's what they are) haven't completely settled on what they are attempting to do with SF—or else there are conflicting tastes at work. But if at some point down the road the BOMC should actually start to sponsor and pay for creative new SF books and put them into the hands of their relatively thoughtful general reading audience, then both the commercial and intellectual strictures that are still keeping SF a strictly genre item might at last be overleaped. Maybe this is the next big breakthrough for which SF has been waiting since the Sixties.
It all depends on whether this new interest proves to be just one more cold-hearted exploitation of the thirty years ago labor, sacrifice and accomplishment of writers like Sturgeon who got precious little reward for their work during their lifetimes, or whether the BOMC has enough sincere respect for the creative nature of SF to actually support the making of new SF that is not just more of the same. If it did, then it could become that medium for serious SF book publishing which the Ace Specials only made a gesture at being. Here, a pivotally placed editor could prove very important to the creative development of SF.
And yet, there is something in me that rebels at the thought of asking the Book of the Month Club to save SF. It is certainly nothing for an SF writer who would be ambitious to start counting upon soon.
The third alternative I see to the lowest-common-denominator SF marketplace is to follow the path of all those who have said to hell with established commercial publishing and just gone ahead and issued books. I speak as the proud co-proprietor of Elephant Books, booksellers to the world. By luck and by grace, together with a lot of personal effort, I have managed to put out my uncategorizable (hence conventionally unpublishable) book Transmutations and the first edition of The World Beyond the Hill. And I have boxes of books stacked in all the corners and closets to prove it.
The abdication from responsibility of the conventional publishing industry when it made its turn toward light entertainment and the fast buck has meant a tremendous flowering of small press publishing of every kind and degree, from my near-amateur foolings to very serious and substantial continuing enterprises. Perhaps the most interesting small press approach to SF that I know of is Pulphouse, whose publications I've hardly seen—which may be an indication that they, too, have trouble in connecting with those who might be interested in what they are doing. But a friend has just handed me their most recent catalog, and I find it fascinating.
This Eugene, Oregon, publisher is apparently trying a million different things at once: a hardback magazine, now about to become a softcover weekly (how audacious!); a writer's magazine; a science fiction critical journal edited by Damon Knight; monthly single author short story collections; original short novels; a series of writers' chapbooks; and series of individually bound short stories in paperback and hardcover. Not to mention a five-volume set of the complete short stories of Robert Sheckley. Everything but novels, and no doubt that is only a matter of time.
I certainly have my questions. When and how much do they pay, for instance? How securely founded is this little industry? Whose taste is guiding the direction of the enterprise, and what direction is that, anyway?
While I'm not altogether sure that the salvation of SF is to be found in 100-copy editions of individual short stories, hardbound in imitation brown leather and signed by the author, at $20 a pop, the sheer breadth of what Pulphouse is attempting is impressive to me. In the comprehensiveness of its efforts, we might have the nucleus for the reestablishment of the coherence, continuity and community that we have been missing in SF. If Pulphouse knows its business, that is, and if the wind is right.
The great continuing problem that keeps small press publishing so small has been distribution—getting publications into the hands of the widely-scattered audience prepared to appreciate them. Guy Tattersall, for one, has been trying to overleap the frustrating barrier that exists between author and reader with those TV ads of his. Even though I may not be a particular fan of the Guarness of things, I have to salute him for that.
The answer for Pulphouse, for Guy, and for me may ultimately lie in the computer. It is still early days there, and who knows what rearrangements of existing social relationships and interactions will eventually result from it? But I have inklings of a coming day, not too far off, when the very existence of a new computer-oriented order calls into existence a new SF to mythically reflect its values and questions—and when computer-based networking makes it a practical possibility for an explorative SF to directly address and reach an eager attuned audience.
And with that I'll end my speculations.
However, while I may possibly have answered David Hartwell's question, I haven't answered my own. I'm still stuck inside of Mobile with a decision to make. For all the fears and hopes that I have expressed, I don't really know what the answer to my own dilemma is other than to just make a decision and live with it.
There is no light here—and no rescuing angel on the horizon prepared to offer me a publishing situation I can feel comfortable with and pay me a living wage while I am at work. Can I bring myself to overlook the lack of receptivity in the commercial SF marketplace to everything I hold dear about SF, and just go ahead and write my SF novel anyway?
Well, I'll tell you. A week or so ago, I got another letter from a young fellow in Romania who has ambitions to start a science fiction publishing program. As a student, he had read a black market edition of a French translation of Rite of Passage, and now he wants to publish it, even though he can only pay me in play money and has to overcome a thousand hurdles to actually publish books at all in this until recently closed society.
I'd asked him why he wanted to publish this particular book. (You can ask such things when no real money is involved.) And here he was again to answer my question.
He said, "I consider science fiction perfectly suited for discovering new ways of thought, which we need very much for the present time. This is why translation of your book would be quite an event; my people is living nowadays a real Rite of Passage."
Now this response in itself is worth more to me than a thousand dollars and sixty-five diamond-studded color-illustrated subscription edition copies of Rite of Passage. I trust that reaction to the book. It's in the old true SF spirit.
It reminds me of what SF is all about, and why I wanted to write it in the first place. Even if to be dangerous and enlightening my story has to travel halfway around the world and find an audience among the heathen.
Perhaps, perhaps, just maybe, I will try writing SF again—if only for my new audience in Romania. Because, after all, I do have a debt and a duty that I can't overlook. And because people attempting, no matter the obstacles, to write SF which is not the same is the only way that SF which is not the same will ever come into being.
(This essay originally appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction #35, July 1991.)