Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Turning 70

"I hate being 70," H.G. Wells said on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1936. Wells was a very famous man, and at his birthday party he was surrounded by other famous men like Bernard Shaw.

I'm not famous and never will be, but I still enjoy life, and there are things I want to accomplish before I reach the finish line, now that I'm in the home stretch, so to speak. One of them is to pay my debt to Wells and all the other science fiction writers who have shaped my imagination over the decades. I've actually been working on this for some time, ever since I became involved in science fiction fandom in 1966. I was an Angry Young Man then, fulminating against a movement called the New Wave that was assailing traditional sf. The New Wave proved to be so ephemeral that when a leading sf academic a couple of years ago wanted to devote a special issue of Science Fiction Studies to the movement, he couldn't find anybody who wanted to contribute to it.

Science fiction is a remarkably resilient genre, and it has survived entire waves of waves of one kind or another. Yet it is a much misunderstood genre. Most people today think of it in terms of movies, TV shows and even computer games. Magazines with "Sci-Fi" in their titles focus almost entirely on the media; the same is true of a Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. But even in the chain book stores -- only Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million now, Borders having bit the dust -- the "Fantasy and Science Fiction" section seems to be dominated by epic fantasy (George R.R. Martin has achieved fame and fortune there) and urban fantasy (Stephanie Meyer and all the other purveyors of vampire, zombie and werewolf novels).

Some years ago, when Earth 2 was running on TV, TV Guide ran a piece on its creators -- whose names I have mercifully forgotten -- and they explained that they had scrupulously avoided reading or watching any science fiction in order to avoid the clich├ęs of the genre and make their show better than anything done before. If that doesn't strike you as arrogance combined with stupidity, imagine the same people saying they had never watched a cop show or a situation comedy and that this would ensure that their cop show or situation comedy would be better than anything ever seen before. In theory, science fiction gets more respect in Academia today, but in practice it too often gets buried in Theory with a capital T -- Critical Theory, Culture Theory and others -- that seem determined to pound a square peg into an ideological round hole.

My own approach developed over several decades, culminating in a four-volume history of the genre: Foundations of Science Fiction, Great Themes of Science Fiction, When World Views Collide and Odd Genre. These were published by Greenwood Press between 1987 and 1994, and got some respect -- the first three (the fourth was an afterthought five years after the others) especially from Mark R. Hillegas, author of a study called The Future as Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians, that I admired greatly:


Hillegas was one of my models, as was the late I.F. Clarke, author of The Pattern of Expectation and Voices Prophesying War. Clarke revised and updated his works several times. I'm taking the same liberty. A lot has happened in the genre over the past two decades, not only in terms of recent works by new writers that break new ground, but in our understanding of the past – POD reprints and online files have made a lot of early utopias and travel tales that prefigure science fiction proper a great deal more accessible. There is a growing number of translations of classic French and modern Japanese sf, and there may be more to come from China, Latin America and elsewhere.

This is just a warm-up. I'm going to start commenting on specifics Nov. 3, the day I actually turn 70. Bear with me!

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts, which stimulated my own thinking about SF because I'm turning sixty myself. Some say the Golden Age of SF is thirteen, and finding that forty plus years have passed can be daunting. Seems like I'm getting started and now it's almost over. What I wouldn't give for a regular supply of boosterspice--that from hopeful SF writer Larry Niven. Not that the hopeful, forward thinking guys get much respect these days. Wreck civilization and you win awards (The Road). Just ask David Brin--who is probably close to sixty himself.