Tag Archives: Robert Silverberg

What comes after SF

fig. 1. Has the future of SF come and gone? Illustration: “As Mars Sees Us”, by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, July 1940.

What comes after SF

‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’
—G. W. F. Hegel[1]

Is there a future for science fiction?

Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.

This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.

Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’[2] However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.

When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’[3] This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971).[4] To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).

The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’[5] This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:

In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.[6]

Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.

To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.

Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’.[7] Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with ever controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).

Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’.[8] By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.

One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete.[9] And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.

The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?

Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.

Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:

by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.[10]

In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.

And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.

Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?


FOOTNOTES

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.

[2] Anthony R. Lewis, An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990. See, also: https://data.nesfa.org/Recursion/

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks, [1982] 2013.

[4] See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.

[5] John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).

[6] Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.

[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Hugo Gernsback, ‘A New Sort of Magazine,’ Amazing Stories Vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1926), p. 3.

[10] Robert Silverberg, ‘Introduction to “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”,’ in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-73, Subterranean Press (Electronic Edition), 2009.

Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth

I have often imagined a review that never ends, that contains every review that has ever been or ever will be written, snaking on and upward, from ruminations on Gilgamesh to who knows what works the future will bring. But it’s not this one, this is just one of the leaves in that review to come, that has never been and perhaps never will…


fig. 1. The copy I read has this cover. It effectively conjures the elephant-like Nildoror, and Gundersen in futuro-retro-1970s garb, gripping his chest anxiously. Cover art by Stuart Hughes.

It is common to describe science fiction as a literature that projects the concerns of the present into an imaginary future. From this perspective, there are those critics and fans that hail science fiction as the royal road to all that is unconscious in the present. Left or right, hard or soft, SF flows from the space-time of its composition. How else could it be? Unless, perhaps, the author was themselves caught up in an SF story, like a hapless protagonist in a Barry Malzberg story, little suspecting their present was doubly fictional, caught in a reductio ad absurdum with appropriate recursive details.

Like most clichés, this well-worn one that SF is just about its present has a lot going for it. We are encouraged to decode the concerns of the author to find traces of our world in their fantasies of tomorrow. What’s less clear, to my mind, is why we should only be concerned with the present as some type of absolute fact of composition.

Our present reality is a strange science fictional beast indeed. It recalls to me Karl Marx’s belief that in capitalist societies the ‘past dominates the present’. Marx’s argument was that by virtue of the twin principles of social organisation in capitalism, the accumulation of wealth by way of the exploitation of wage labour, the past comes to dominate the present. More poetically he put it thus: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. The situationists called this ‘dead time’. The experience of wage labour—with its dull rhythms and repetitions subservient to the needs of business and wealth—is it most obvious manifestation.

Once the entire planet had been made over, industrialised into a single market in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science fiction appeared to cheer this vision and chase it across the Earth and the dream of beyond. Dead time is the true subject matter of science fiction, just as science fiction is the poetry of dead time. SF sings of technological alienation, of rockets and of man. Which is not to say that it does not have its own beauty. At its best, SF dreams of overcoming the present dominated by the past; at worst, it endlessly projects the living death of the capitalist present ever on into a future without respite.

*

The past dominates the story in Downward to the Earth. However, Silverberg endeavours to interrogate this dominance, in the guise of the central protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, and his quest for the redemption of past sins. Indeed, the author does not spare us with a flattering image of our present projected into his fictional future. And yet, in the person of Gundersen, he holds out the possibility of meaningfully reckoning with the missteps of past crimes.

The outline of the story is simple. Gundersen returns to the planet Belzagor to seek redemption. In the course of this tale, he travels upriver to the Mist Country where the inhabitants undergo a mysterious rebirthing ceremony. There, the possibility of transcendence beckons—a familiar trope in this high period of Silverberg’s writings (1967-75). Along the way, Gundersen revisits the old places of the colonial occupation and some of the people who remained behind. In the guise of these characters, old friends, colleagues, a former lover, Seena, and his travelling companion Srin’gahar, an indigenous Nildoror, Gundersen successively throws off the memories of a past that still weighs upon him.

Belzagor. That’s what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound like Bllls’grr.[1]

A revealing episode near the outset of Gundersen’s journey upriver is given in a brief discussion between him and his travelling companion, Srin’gahar, the Nildoror. Scratching a map into the dirt, Gundersen attempts to engage Srin’gahar in a discussion regarding the course of their journey. Quickly, we discover that for the Nildoror the map is quite literally not the territory. Bereft of analogues of the human hand, not only do the Nildoror have no written language, equally they have no experience of the abstractly symbolic, whether picture or text. It is in this passage, and later, in the even more elusive chapter on the mysteries of rebirthing, that Silverberg truly renders the alienness of his aliens. No doubt humanity lived its long dream without need or desire for a written language until relatively recently, and yet along the way it fashioned abstract symbols all the same. The idea of an alien intelligence without any need or desire for such abstraction, and so perforce literally at one with their ephemerality, intrigues me no end. Indeed, it reminds me of Guy Debord drawing attention to the systematic abstraction that is entailed in our world of dead time and the commodity-spectacle:

Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.[2]

Under the influence of the Nildoror, Gundersen’s journey from his past as a colonial agent is clearly a movement from the map to the territory, from abstraction downward to the earth.

The worldbuilding of Belzagor is one of the most astonishing aspects of the novel. The two sentient species Silverberg populates the planet with, the elephant-like Nildoror and the less seen Yeti-like Sulidoror, are well realised. One could perhaps mistake Silverberg for merely fashioning yet more dubious versions of racist stereotypes. Certainly, the Nildoror and Sulidoror are variously represented as noble, and sometimes savage. But they are never merely this. Silverberg uses them as more than simply a foil to the ‘civilised’ Gundersen. Indeed, Gundersen’s desire to understand the significance of the rebirthing ceremony points to a more potent message that is suggested, in part, in the Debord quote above. It is not that we have simply lost something in the fall into civilisation and abstract culture; rather, the desire to overcome abstractions as truly abstract and wholly autonomous, remains an urgent need.

Unfortunately, Silverberg is unable to extend his sensitivity for the colonised to a more full-blooded representation of human women, or rather the only significant woman in the story: Seena, Gundersen’s former lover. I’m not the first to remark on this common failing of Silverberg. To my mind this is precisely a failing of his future imaginary, his succumbing to the worst ideas and practices of the time in which the novel was composed. Which is all the more striking considering that Silverberg was not insensitive to the stupidities and impositions of hierarchical society. To be fair to him, he is not completely unaware of his failings in this regard. For instance, consider the dolphin protagonist of ‘Ishmael in Love’ (1970), and his somewhat hilarious if still limited comments on the nature of heterosexual male desire in the human. And once one gets past the voyeuristic male gaze that has no equal in his descriptions of Gundersen and the other men in the novel, Seena is more than a simple carboard cut-out as one finds written by too many of Silverberg’s male contemporaries.

In part, Silverberg’s models Gundersen’s quest upon that of Marlowe’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He even goes so far as to include a character called Kurtz, who like his namesake in Conrad’s novel operates as a narrative pivot, but nonetheless somewhat differently in Silverberg’s story.

Given the influence of Conrad, what is striking about the human empire that had once ruled Belzagor is its antiquated character. It is patently modelled upon the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—most obviously, upon the Congo that had only gained its independence from Belgium some 8 years before Downward to the Earth was published. Considering that Silverberg has little to say about the whys and wherefores of this empire of the future, I will forgive him this anachronism. Simply because he does not use the empire in the usual science fictional way, as a somewhat exotic backdrop that too often affirms the prerogatives and crimes of the actual empires that litter our history. Refreshingly, Silverberg interrogates the brutal truth of empire, on Earth as much as in his fictional setting—and so perforce as it is often unthinkingly used in SF.

Another clear influence upon Silverberg’s novel is the work of J. G. Ballard. One episode, in which Seena tells Gundersen about the fate of a co-conspirator of Kurtz, reminded me of Ballard’s story, The Crystal World:

He was staying at Fire Point, and went out into the Sea of Dust and got some kind of crystalline parasite into a cut. When Kurtz and Ced Cullen found him, he was all cubes and prisms, outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin everywhere. And he was still alive. For a while.[3]

Ballardian tropes are scattered throughout the novel. The Drowned World is here, shipwrecked in Belzagor’s humid jungle, alongside other evocations of ruin and cold melancholy: the dilapidated hotel, the abandoned, overgrown colonial stations, the futility of struggling against entropy. Downward to the Earth is at once homage and elaboration that wears its influence proudly.

fig. 2. On the left, one of René Magritte’s illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror; on the right Félix Vallotton’s fanciful portrait of Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont. Magritte’s drawing illustrates a scene from the first canto, presumably when Maldoror seduces and destroys the young boy. I like to imagine that this creature is also the one Gundersen encounters in the abandoned company station in chapter eight.

I believe that another, more obscure force worked itself upon Silverberg here. It can be found in the suffixes that Silverberg used for his indigenous aliens: the Nildoror, Sulidoror, and especially the dumb Malidaror, a ‘semi-aquatic mammal’ that we briefly encounter in chapter four. They all, especially the latter, seem to descend from the unspeakable lineage of the eponymous protagonist of that strange, disquieting nineteenth century anti-novel, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. Am I merely imagining this? I know that Silverberg had some encounter with Lautréamont. He is mentioned in passing in his much-admired novel Dying Inside. Though again, perhaps he betrays the influence of Ballard. In a Vermillion Sands short story, ‘Cry Hope, Cry Fury’ (1967), Ballard has his protagonist not only reading Les Chants de Maldoror, but appropriately dogged by a Maldororian character. Of course, I may be wrong regarding the influence of Lautréamont upon Silverberg. I hope—inevitably a wretched and sickly hope—that the connection exists. And if you don’t believe me, as Lautréamont remarks in the final line of Maldoror, go and see for yourselves.[4]

*

I first read Robert Silverberg as an 8- or 9-year-old. It was his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, published 1955. It is a very different beast to Downward to the Earth. And yet there are structural similarities. Both novels revolve around a choice made by the protagonist, one that must lead either to destruction or transformation—or possibly both.

Revolt on Alpha C is a kids book with classic SF tropes: dinosaurs, rayguns, space-time overdrive and thus, necessarily, rocket ships. It became one of my early templates for SF—which is no bad thing. Remarkably, for my childish and impressionable mind, it had a positive representation of revolution, based upon the Revolutionary War in North America in the 1770s and 80s. Thank you, Robert Silverberg. And thank you, decade of the 1970s, and for the many and varied realities and representations of revolution and revolutionaries in the mass popular culture of the day, even if most of them were cast as dastardly and bad. Silverberg’s was an exception. Come join the revolution on another planet, he said. Was it this call that lodged in my infant brain?

fig. 3. The Scholastic Book Services version of Revolt on Alpha C. Permanently burnt into my longterm SF imaginary. Cover art by William Meyerriecks.

My tumble into Silverberg’s work, though long, has been occasional. After reading and rereading Revolt on Alpha C as a child, I didn’t read him again for many years, and not so successfully. I recall trying to read The Time Hoppers (1967) and not finding it of much worth. Though this review makes it sound like a cool, Philip K Dick gem of a story—could I have been so wrong? Horses for courses as they say. A slew of excellent Silverberg short stories from the mid-sixties made me realise that I was perhaps being unfair by thinking of him fondly only for that slight tale of Space Academy Patrol cadets Larry Stark and Harl Ellison of the starship Carden mucking about on Alpha C IV. And please excuse me for thinking that it is more than merely a coincidence that the ship’s name is also a nom de plume of Cornelius Castoriadis, sometime revolutionary and theorist of Socialisme ou Barbarie. For with a mind made of correlations and paranoias what else could it be?

It wasn’t until I read the excellent ‘Passengers’ (1968), and then not long after Hawksbill Station, both novella and novel in rapid succession, that it was confirmed for me that Silverberg was worth more than a cursory look. But even then, I was confused, mostly because I had read both versions of Hawksbill together. To my mind the novella is the better realisation. The novel adds superfluous detail that only detracts from the horror at the centre of the story. Reading it so soon after the excellent novella only detracted from the latter. And so more years passed before I found myself here. And on my way I recently read the review of Hawksbill Station at Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it. Reading and talking about Silverberg got me to thinking and wanting to read and talk some more about Silverberg. Good fortune: I already had a copy of Downward to the Earth. And so, my review. Is it here that it begins just when it looked like it was ending?


FOOTNOTES

[1] Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 [1969], p. 7 (chapter 1).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 31.

[3] Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).

[4] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 219. Translation modified. Note that if Silverberg used an English translation of Maldoror before 1970 he would not have had access to Alexis Lykiard’s excellent version. The only widely available English translation at the time was Guy Wernham’s 1943 version, newly reprinted in a 1966 New Directions paperback. I can see a project taking shape: perusing all citations of Maldoror in science fiction, hidden or explicit. Written up, it would resemble Ballard’s superlative short story, ‘The Index’ (1977).


Great SF Stories

fig. 1. 1939: still not much to see here. Cover of The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1, 1939 (published 1979).

A bit over two year ago I finished the final story in Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories. Over the 25 volumes, the editors—Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov—introduce us to their choice cuts of primarily Anglo-American SF between 1939 and 1963.

The collection is a good introduction to Anglo-American SF that takes you from the so-called Campbellian “Golden Age” right up until the precipice of the New Wave of SF in the 1960s. First published between 1979 and 1992 by DAW Books, The Great SF Stories is now sadly out of print. Many of the stories can be found elsewhere, and I have heard that pdfs of the collection exist on the interwebs. However, I desired the hard stuff, so I hunted the entire collection down through various online secondhand bookstores between 2016 & 2019.

As a result of the read through I’ve assembled a list of works that I liked, divided into three categories: Top shelf (three ***), Good (two **) and Not Bad (one *). My system, like most—or rather, all—is highly subjective. Make of it what you will.[1] The list is linked here—and can be accessed through the menu bar above. Or, if you want to cut to the chase, you can check out the Top Shelf picks alone, that can also be accessed through the menu bar above.

Over the coming months I am planning on revisiting some of the Top Shelf stories in order to critically assess them on this blog. Who knows, maybe an occasional Good and Not Bad will creep in too. And I will no doubt even change some of the ratings from time to time, depending on rereads and whim.

I found that reading Asimov and Greenberg’s selection spun me off further to pursuing stories from this period and beyond. As a result I’ve added other works not found in this collection to my list, drawn from author collections and other collections from the period—for instance, T.E. Dikty and E.F. Bleiler’s Best Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl’s Star Science Fiction, Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Year’s Best S-F.

At the odyssey’s end I found myself wanting to continue the journey, so I first of all read Robert Silverberg’s one-off attempt to continue Asimov and Greenberg’s collection. Sadly, Silverberg didn’t continue with this. So, I began reading collections that fortuitously began the year following Silverberg’s selection of 1964 stories, notably Donald Wolheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction Series. I have plans to extend my reading into other collections from the 1960s and 70s, but here I begin to find certain limits that were a kind of negative factor in inspiring Asimov and Greenberg’s attempt to present a “definitive” collection from 1939-1963. When one reaches the mid-1960s SF collections begin to mushroom, alongside of the growing popularity of SF. Indeed, it was partly the scarcity of collections prior to the mid-60s that inspired Greenberg and Asimov’s 25 volume collection.

*

fig. 2. 1950: things are heating up. Cover of The Great SF Stories Volume 12, 1950 (first published 1984).

One of my prime motivations for reading the entire collection was to get a better idea of the general themes and trends of this crucial period for SF. I have been reading SF since I was a wee boy in the 1970s. But it was only upon discovering the likes of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in my teens in the 1980s that I began to understand the true power and importance of the short story. Over the years I increasingly turned to short SF, but my journey through written SF through the 1990s and 2000s was more of a meander while other things competed for my attention: primarily university, far left politics, avant-garde literature and parenthood. It has only been over the last decade that I have begun to more systematically explore the riches of short SF.

Having read the entire Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories collection, I can now heartily recommend it, but with a few caveats. Of the 30 stories that I rate as Top Shelf in the 25 years covered by the collection, only 7 of these lay in the so-called “Golden Age” period (1939-50)—and none in the first two years of the collection (1939 and 1940). No doubt what I rate as Top Shelf would differ for another reader. However, to that reader and all readers of this collection I would propose that the “real” Golden Age of science fiction—or at least what I term “Anglo-American” science fiction—begins around 1950. Something Barry Malzberg believes in too. [2]

The years that first leapt out in my read through were 1950, 1951 and especially 1952. What a year it was that could manifest “Delay In Transit” by F. L. Wallace, “The Altar At Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton, “Cost Of Living” by Robert Sheckley and “Ticket To Anywhere” by Damon Knight—to name just a few. 1957, 1963 and 1964 are also great years too.  

Nonetheless, without Campbell’s so-called “Golden Age” what would modern science fiction be? This model, replete with its fanzines, fannish conventions, DIY ethos, and Campbell’s much vaunted (by himself) “professionalisation” of the pulps, became the model par excellence for SF. It was exported on the coat tails of US cultural hegemony, replicating itself across the globe, starting scenes where there were none, and in other cases displacing and converting pre-existing ones.

Certainly, the unquestionably science fictional works that pre-exist this “Golden Age” both inside and without the Anglophone countries somewhat undermines Campbell’s late claim. Still, I am fascinated by the focus SF achieves from around 1940—though more so around 1950 (coincident with the arrival of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy in the US). Indeed, it is my belief that between 1950 and 1970, SF, in its own distinct and science fictional way, replicates the paths and patterns of modern literary and artistic culture outside the ghetto. From the enthusiastic fury of its half-baked DIY pulp origins, SF rapidly matures, aspiring after a literary renown the equal of the mainstream, only to find by the end of the sixties precisely the impasse reached by the European artistic avant-gardes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this sense I see the New Wave of the 1960s—and New Wave adjacent SF works—as signaling the end of not just the first phase of Anglo-American SF, but the end of literature in a similar way to the literary avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the ‘end’ I speak of is not the actual cessation of the writing and consumption of literature, but rather the end of a project that was embodied in the avant-garde. The ‘freedom of the word’ announced amidst the poetic experimentation in France in the mid-19th century not only led to the ultra-modernist experiments of the Dadas and James Joyce (for example), but posed the possibility of a freedom of creative action beyond the expressive impasses reached upon the written page. It was Guy Debord’s wager that this movement toward self-destruction—that is, the formal experimental destruction of the received wisdom regarding what counted as ‘art’—demonstrated the limits of merely artistic experimentation, and the pressing need to transform such experiments beyond the canvas and the page into a revolutionary transformation of everyday life itself. It is to this ‘end’ and ends of art and literature that I am pointing to here.

This ‘impasse’ of the apparent self-destruction of so much of what we would consider ‘literary’, whether met with in SF or elsewhere, is what Debord called the “decomposition of culture”.[3] It is this that I seek to explore more fully on this blog, through critical reviews of individual works, as well as more general reflections on the place of science fiction in the three or four decades after the Second World War. I might even try and explain what I mean by ‘impasse’ and ‘self-destruction’ more clearly—at least more clearly than I have previously done!

*

A brief note on my definition of ‘Anglo-American SF’. What it is: what is sounds like: SF produced in and or by people in the US and the Anglophone countries, broadly defined (Britain and ex-British Colonies, though primarily Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1950-1970). The importance of this SF is undoubted, coincident with the rise to dominance of the USA in the post-Second World War globalisation of capitalism. However, it is hard to disentangle the “triumph” of Anglo-American SF as the dominant model of SF from the rise to cultural, economic and political dominance of the US itself (and, to a lesser extent for the period we’re talking of, the dominance of the British Empire prior to this). What do I mean? In the case of the classic John W. Campbell “competent man” SF promulgated in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the resonance with the overwhelming influence of the US in the West after the war is obvious. But less noted—to my mind—is that even strains of SF that were more open to oppositional ideas (for instance H. L. Gold’s Galaxy), indirectly benefited from US cultural dominance. Which is not to damn such oppositional strains—far from it. Rather, it is to reckon with the context and conditions in and by which English language SF was singularly predominant in the period covered by Asimov and Greenberg’s anthology.


FOOTNOTES

[1] As the evil Hegelian-Marxian that I am, I prefer to think of the subjective as in truth a dialectical interplay of subjective and objective determinations—no subject is purely subjective, and perforce is capable of objectifying not only their subjectivity, but the world which they inhabit too.

[2] For instance, see Barry Malzberg, ‘Introduction: The Fifties’, in The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, eds. Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Prozini, Ace Books, 1979. Available to borrow online here.

[3] See the definition of ‘decomposition’, here. Debord spoke of the movement toward the ‘self-destruction’ of poetry in France in the 19th century as been bound up with the assertion of the ‘autonomy of poetic language’ around the time of the poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry’ (see, here). It is my belief that a similar movement exists in Anglo-American SF between 1950 and 1970.

“Who am I?”

fig. 1. Somewhere in Sydney, Australia, c. 1969 A.D.

The photo above was taken some time between my first and second birthday. That would make it most likely 1969. I like to imagine that I have been left all alone while the rest of my family has gone to watch the moon landing on the tele.

A few toys scattered around. Some pathetic beads on the inaccurately named play pen. The magnificent desolation of the family home. My sad eyes betray the truth of the situation, imprisoned behind a stockade that I learn to push around as I gain in strength. The literal prison that I gradually internalise and push around for the rest of my life.

I don’t remember the moon landings—and yet I do. Not from when they happened, but shortly thereafter. In the 1970s I became childishly obsessed with Project Apollo. I awoke to it not long after it ended—perhaps as it ended. My first clear memories of the space race are in its immediate wake: Skylab in 1973 and 1974. Puzzled and amazed by the few pictures appearing in the newspapers, a desultory epilogue with none of the fanfare of its earlier, grander cousin.

To my child’s mind, thirsty for sensation and experience amidst an ocean of naivety, Apollo quickly came to represent the apex of human achievement. The great adventure beyond the atmosphere, the first step on the road to the stars. Surely this was the old dream become fact of the science fiction I had already begun to consume; paperbacks passed down from my siblings on high: Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer. And so on—all the begats in a newfound materialist pantheon.

The 1970s passed. And the inexplicable monotony and random violence of school became as familiar as the weather, as my growing awareness, awash with the confabulated fancies of just so stories of space and time, became fitfully aware of the adult world of work, economics and other miseries.

When did I lose the desire, that pressing need to be an astronaut just like Colonel Steven Austin? That perverse longing to be simultaneously less fictional and more fantastical. Would it be possible, in my onrushing adult life, to juggle the struggle with fembots and bigfoot while furthering Neil Armstrong’s mundane triumph?

The never-ending delays to the launch of the first Space Shuttle played a role in my creeping disillusion, as age and a changing world alerted me to how far we had fallen from the dizzy heights of the all too brief space age. To have missed it, even though I was born a full 18 months before the first human set foot upon the moon, was surely the greatest misery in my life before my eleventh year.

When the 50th anniversary of the moon landings rolled around back in 2019, before the pandemic came to remind us that life is far more fragile than the jokers who rule us would have us believe, I tried to reconnect with my first love. I bought Lego. I bought more Lego. I built the kits and tried to feel connected to my past—real and imagined. I even framed an old, National Geographic moon map from February 1969, replete with “proposed Apollo landing sites” dutifully marked out on this map of my future life in space. But I felt little other than the cloying taste of nostalgia, overripe for demographic targeting and other lamentable scams and marketing opportunities. Indeed, I made a fake ad in the style of the 1960s that attempted to summarise my critical anxiety and fascination with July 1969.

fig. 2. “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”

The space race failed as surely as the so-called struggle between the East and West: one shitty system masquerading as communism, the other disguised as freedom. Both miserable mirrors of each other’s spectacular claim for human apotheosis.

Meanwhile, in the veritable ruins of the last century and more we wonder more about the unbearably hot days soon to come upon this Earth. Other viruses have invaded our collective imaginaries, none quite so bright or as faintly ridiculous as the childish wish to live out there among the stars. Still, for those of us unfortunate enough to have been struck by the bug, the fever dreams of space exploration and extra-terrestrial colonies that never came continue to haunt the bleak future that did arrive. And the paltry visions of the current hucksters of commercial space exploration does nothing to mollify this, only rendering more starkly what we have lost in all its aching, dayglow imagery.


For more information regarding the image, “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”, see here.