The Spaced-Out Library

     Modern science fiction—where does it originate, what distinguishes it from earlier science fiction writing?

     It the mid-1960s traditions in science fiction seemed to change as it became merged with the popular culture and with the hip offbeat and the avant-garde, the last of which resembled it in intentions and purpose but was different in that it was less fictional. Also figuring in was the rebel and beat generation culture, which had the similar purpose of being unconventional. Sure, they’d attend conventions, but they were not followers of socially imposed conventions.  And, offsetting all this, mundane writing started accumulating as Clifford Simak, Nevil Shute, and others of the mundane sort started getting interesting to fellow writers of the mundane sort, who tried out what they were doing. There was a draw to the unusual caused in part by the publicity attending attempts to suppress the unusual—and it was occurring to more and more writers, essayists and critics that conditions in the modern world were coming more and more to resemble science fiction—which pulled science fiction toward the mainstream, an uncomfortable resting place for it. There was a cultural infusion with confused and polyglot results.

     This infusion occurred (rather than science fiction infusing other forms of writing, which it had somewhat of a tendency to do, and which its writers did from time to time, but not very frequently) because science fiction is notably apocalyptic, and there is a tendency among writers in general to wish to modify what is apocalyptic, as well as their having a natural interest in such writing. They’d take their turn at trying out such subject matter as science fiction presented, welcomed there by a few writers and editors such as Anthony Boucher, who had a mundane and worldly approach to science fiction himself.

     At the same time, science fiction writers were being tempted to try other forms of writing and see how they would make out there, and one would find them in unusual places, adapting their viewpoint to the kind of writing that was being done there and, it was my impression, usually not measuring up very well. They were also being seduced into inferior markets such as men’s magazines and cheap slicks, aided somewhat by William Hamling, who had a men’s magazine himself called Rogue. A regular columnist who was appearing there also, in addition to Alfred Bester, was Lenny Bruce, a rebel and iconoclast who had also had his attention drawn away from what he was usually doing, and his writing was adapted to that magazine as well as he could manage. So not all of this inter-literary infusion was innocent.  (Hamling was a bohemian.)

     This all resulted in science fiction beginning to wrestle with mundane matters (home and family, estates, the advisability of progress, etc.). It also led to attacks on the mundane, in which beatniks were the characters, as reference Samuel Delaney. And the avant-garde, which was largely newness for its own sake, had a stultifying effect on science fiction while coming up with smashing effects.

     Then there was the infusion of war writing, including some militarily oriented science fiction. The way was open for that; one of the earlier works of science fiction was THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and there were writings about the results of warfare, such as DAYBREAK 2250 AD. This, however, attracted the attention of people who wrote of warfare in a commoner way, such as Norman Mailer, and the warfare writing became too particularizing and oppressive, lacking the sheen of a good science fiction story. And, too, what was going on was conflict, what with all these influences and counter-influences. The world, with all its worst, is too much with science fiction in these modern times; few of the televised science fiction series had anything but insurmountable warfare in them, conditions so bad as to be dementing the culture. Scientific or military problems may be overcome, but the world portrayed as having these problems has become abysmal. I would call attention to how many of the stories have broken homes, with divorces, deaths, multiple marriages, orphaned characters, lost jobs, mortgages, the worst of conditions on the home front.

     That isn’t so much spaced out as being lost in space; in SG1 and Battlestar Galactica there was just no real hope for the human race. Finally we get John Scalzi with THE END OF ALL THINGS. Scalzi isn’t answering questions from his Facebook page, it has been my experience. People predict the end of science fiction, but I hope that this does not occur.

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