So, the Sad Puppies Then… Part One: The Origins Of Science Fiction

I promised to talk about the “sad puppy slate” for the Hugos, because I think this is something that a lot of people who aren’t reading my Hugo posts might find interesting.

So let’s talk about the origins of science fiction, for a bit. I’ve seen science fiction described (in an article that led me to discover the term) as equal parts Menippean satire and Beowulf, and this is largely correct — The Time Machine, for example (a novel fresh in my mind after seeing Nunkie Theatre’s one-man show based on it), one of the founding documents on which SF is based, is very much a Menippean satire — someone travels to a strange environment and explores it, and the exploration casts modern society in a new light, while allowing the author to discuss a range of philosophical ideas. The plot is essentially nonexistent, and there are no characters other than the Time Traveller (and even he is nameless and almost completely a cipher).

The other part of the science fiction formula, the Beowulf part, is the old pulp adventure story staple — a bad guy rides into town on a horse/spaceship, so a strong man sees him off with a six/ray-gun. The Lester Dent formula is this story boiled down to its essence. Pulp writers would write the same story in every supposed genre — Westerns, romance, detective stories, horror, whatever, and they could just as easily do spaceships as cowboys.

These two genres may seem to have absolutely nothing in common — one is all about the exploration of ideas, with little regard for plot, while the other is all plot, plot, plot, and the closest it comes to dealing with ideas is that there should be a good hook to hang the story on. But they were uniquely suited to each other because of one type of person — the type who is now known as a “geek”, a group of people that overlaps largely with, but is not identical to, people with so-called “high functioning” autism. (Note for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, I am on the autism spectrum myself).

Neither pulp, with its emphasis on formulaic action, nor the Menippean satire, looking at societies and ideas, have the same focus as the “literary” novel — they don’t deal with characters, except in the most basic, stock, way, and no attempt is made at naturalism. On top of this, there is nothing geeks like any more than talking about pure ideas in their most abstract form.

But the pulp formula appeals too, because one of the big things for the geek mindset is seeing patterns in things, and being able to copy those patterns and play with them. The combination of these two elements produced a literature with plots that followed a formula, and stock characters, but with utterly fascinating ideas and situations.

(This is why Doctor Who is science fiction, incidentally, despite having almost no actual science in it. I’d argue that so are, for example, the novels of Dan Brown, terrible though they are.)

And so almost as soon as “science fiction” became a genre in its own right (usually dated at the March 1926 publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories) there started to be young, geekish, science fiction fans, and those fans wanted to be writers. By 1934, science fiction fan organisations existed, and by 1937 the Futurians had formed, a group of young, staggeringly intelligent, often socially-awkward young (mostly) men who would go on to be, in many instances, the most important science fiction writers of the next few decades.

These young writers, along with others like Robert Heinlein, created what we now think of as science fiction, and they did so because of one man, John W. Campbell. Campbell was a writer himself (his story Who Goes Here is the basis of The Thing From Another World, the 1950s science fiction film that was remade in the 80s and a couple of years ago as The Thing), but he was most influential as an editor.

Campbell, as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog) from 1937 on, insisted that the stories he published must have an original idea, and must be written in competent prose. These don’t sound like massive requirements, but they were so far ahead of the standard for the pulp magazines of the time that Astounding was the place to be published. Isaac Asimov, for example, basically never wrote stories for any editor other than Campbell in the first fifteen years or so of his career. He was published by many other editors, because Campbell often turned him down, but he never wrote for anyone else.

And Campbell shaped those writers — he gave Asimov the ideas for both the Three Laws and Nightfall, for example. But his influence was far from all good.

The Futurians were, for the most part, very left-wing. A large number of them were Jewish, they were geeks (who as a rule like simple political systems based on axioms rather than reality), and they were generally rather poor, so like many people in that time they gravitated towards Communism, or at least to the hard left generally. Campbell, on the other hand, was a rabid right-winger — a bigot who defended slavery, voted for George Wallace, and argued often in favour of eugenics. (He also had a lot of the other cluster of beliefs that seem to go with these, like beliefs in pseudoscience and Dianetics).

As a result, Campbell effectively censored the growing genre in all sorts of ways. Isaac Asimov, for example, only wrote one story with alien life until the mid-70s (after Campbell died). The reason was that Campbell’s racism wouldn’t let him see anyone as the equal to white, English-speaking, Americans — and certainly not aliens. Asimov, on the liberal left, believed that intelligent aliens would be deserving of the same rights and respect as any human, just as he believed all humans were, and so solved the problem by just never having aliens in his stories.

The result is that SF fandom, growing up reading the works of dogmatic technocratic leftists, but filtered through a hard-right viewpoint, gravitated towards a political position that wasn’t advocated by either Campbell or the Futurians, but had elements of both, and was advocated by another writer discovered by Campbell, Robert Heinlein. They drifted towards Libertarianism.

(To be continued…)

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4 Responses to So, the Sad Puppies Then… Part One: The Origins Of Science Fiction

  1. Interesting and oddly timely given that I’ve just read Beowulf and am presently on another volume of Dick shorts, specifically featuring a couple which (as PKD observes in his notes) go against the grain of the 50s superman of the future (of which JWC was obviously a fan). Also ties in to some of the shite that occurred to me during my recent van Vogt reading (if you saw that review?).

    • Yeah, Dick is about as anti-Campbellian as it’s possible to get. And absolutely agreed about the van Vogt review — the interesting thing about van Vogt is the way he puts the idea exploration and the Gernsbackian pulp together in a completely different way from anyone else and provides almost an alternative model for how SF could have gone, even though he was so close to Campbell…

  2. Tony Harms says:

    Then do you see Kipling’s ABC stories which eerily prefigure the Campbell worldview as “sports” unconnected to the general history and development of SF?

    • Interesting question. To a large extent, yes. I’ve certainly never heard Kipling named by any of the writers in question as an inspiration, and he was a lot more ambivalent about technocracy than Campbell was. But I agree the parallels are there, and there may have been some influence…

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