“I think science fiction helps us think about possibilities, to speculate – it helps us look at our society from a different perspective. It lets us look at our mores, using science as the backdrop, as the game changer.”
Mae Jemison, “…astronaut, physician, Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, founder and president of two technology companies…”
My last post was about suicide and despair, but also about jazz and science fiction. Let’s endeavor to keep things a bit lighter, shall we? As the writer David Foster Wallace says:
“…we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid it is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”
Yeah, OK, Foster himself was a suicide at age 46, but that doesn’t negate the validity of his statement.
The science fiction of the 50’s and 60’s, when I was a kid, was written mostly by white, middle class, men. Notable exceptions include Octavia E. Butler, a recipient of many awards including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” Samuel R. Delany (who was a professor of creative writing at Temple U. until he retired in 2015), Joanna Russ, a staunch and pioneering feminist, and Ursula K. Le Guin, a special favorite of mine, who died in January of 2018.
But all of them were the exceptions that proved the rule. None of them were published in the leading magazine of the day for science fiction, Astounding, which later became Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Among the majority of white, middle class men who were published in the magazine, were Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard, all legendary sci-fi writers. A recent book nonfiction book by Alec Nevala-Lee, entitled Astounding, centers around the life and times of John W. Campbell, Jr, the magazine’s highly-influential editor and his relationship with these three notable authors.
Hubbard, who became the founder of Dianetics and Scientology, was a prolific pulp magazine writer, but I don’t ever remember reading his stuff as a teenager. Much later I started one of his space operas, but lost interest after just a few pages. Back in high school, I read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, The Door into Summer, the controversial Stranger in a Strange Land, and many other novels and short stories, including the classic time-travel yarn, “By His Bootstraps.” Asimov, one of the most prolific writers of all time, was famous for his robot stories, the Foundation saga, and myriad books popularizing science.
“People are crazy, life is strange,” goes a part of the refrain in a Dylan song. All of these people seem a bit nuts, to one degree or another. A wise man told me once that each person has a vast assortment of aspects. Depending on conditions and the present state of the heart/mind, those aspects connect in different constellations, creating a different sort of person: strong, weak, fearful, courageous, bitter, compassionate -we all have a wide range of potential personalities.
Nevala-Lee’s book is a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Before I started I expected Hubbard to be depicted as a nut job, but all the players end up having feet of clay, even the relatively sane Asimov, who sadly turns out to be a “grabber” along the lines of our current POTUS. Campbell himself, while certainly having a lot to do with raising the bar on the whole genre, was an overt racist and sexist, and nearly as crazy as Hubbard. Heinlein, plagued by ill-health, becomes increasingly grumpy and conservative and, like a lot of WWII vets, was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. They were complex people who had their strengths as well as their weaknesses. I do wish Nevala-Lee had added a bit of choice literary criticism. He notes stories that were influential, but avoids describing the innovations and aspects that powered their influence. I suppose he chose not to go that way since the book is hefty enough as it is. He did an enormous amount of meticulous and exhaustive research to be sure.
Campbell did publish a number of women authors. Despite his racist comments he did supposedly admire Delany. But he rejected some great fiction, including some of the best works by Heinlein and Asimov. By the time the editor died at age 61 in 1971, the science fiction universe was expanding rapidly and had surpassed his vision and imagination.
Among the authors Campbell did publish, Theodore Sturgeon, was my favorite and the most open-hearted writer of the bunch. His novels, The Dreaming Jewels, More Than Human, and The Cosmic Rape are still great favorites of mine.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia link on Sturgeon says he ghost-wrote an Ellery Queen mystery, The Player on the Other Side. I’m going to close this now and spend the rest of the evening reading it!
Next time: More comic as usual and a look at a few things science-fictional that are more current.
Devoted fan-hordes (all 3 or 4 of you): I will be at a silent meditation retreat a little more than a week from now, so I won’t be posting until sometime in April. I do have every intention of returning. If you gotta see more comic in the meantime, you know what to do.