In Defense of Guys with Screwdrivers

So earlier this month, Jasyn Jones made the statement in a blog post that John Campbell did not usher in a Golden Age of Science Fiction.  His thesis is that Campbell, when he became editor of Astounding, ushered in a golden age in which science fiction rose from being a genre of poorly written fiction with wooden characters and bad science to great heights.  Indeed, this is the general narrative.  Jones reasserts his thesis that this ain’t so in a followup post.

For those who are new to the field and think it began when you started reading it or shortly beforehand or have been around for a while and simply haven’t been paying attention, John W. Campbell, Jr., took over the editorial reigns of Astounding from F. Orlin Tremaine in 1938 and dominated the field for a dozen years until F&SF and Galaxy came along in 1950.  Indeed, Isaac Asimov says as much in the opening paragraphs of his introduction to his anthology of Pre-Campbell science fiction, Before the Golden Age (Doubleday, 1974).  Note to self: reread this book and blog about it.

Now, before I get started on this post, I want to say that I mean no disrespect to Mr. Jones and none of what follows in in any way meant to be a personal attack.  Furthermore, I think he brings up a number of valid points, and for the most part I agree with him.  My differences are more with some of the attitudes that have been expressed in reaction to the posts in question, as well as other posts in other places.  I’ve not had a chance to read all of them, so rather than post links, I’ll let you hunt them down if you’re so inclined.

But since I grew up reading a great deal of Campbellian SF, much of it in the Ballantine Best of series and DAW’s Isaac Asimov Present the Great SF, I’m rather fond  of the science fiction written by “guys with screwdrivers”, as Campbellian SF is being called.  So I’d like to express my admiration of it.

But before I do, I want to make one thing perfectly clear.  I have pretty wide ranging tastes.  What I review here and at Futures Past and Present (where this post might be more suitable) and at Gumshoes, Gats, and Gams encompasses a great deal of my likes and interests, but not everything.  Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe my interests.

Mr. Jones makes a very valid point that Batman, Conan, and Tarzan all had pulp origins and are known all over the world while few if any could name the protagonist of a Campbellian work.  I don’t buy that Campbell’s Astounding was necessarily inferior.  I think it took a more narrow focus than much of the other pulps.  That this focus was used to denigrate adventure oriented fiction is not something I will argue.  It was.  And it shouldn’t have been.  What I don’t want to see, and what Jones very clearly states he doesn’t want to do, is the same thing in reverse.  Kudos to him for that.

Much of the arguments about which is better boil down to taste.  There have been individuals who have stated that they despise Campbellian SF.  And they ARE  NOT WRONG in saying that.  They are expressing their tastes, tastes that are not mine.  As long as they don’t try to impose those tastes on others (and as far as I’m aware, none are), I have no quarrel with them.  We may not discuss certain topics if we ever meet up, but we still have enough in common we could probably have an enjoyable conversation.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

Campbellian SF focuses more on ideas than adventure.  This will naturally appeal to a smaller group of people, a group heavily slanted to readers with science and engineering backgrounds.  I’m a scientist by training, although not currently a practicing one, having fallen into the twin career hells of teaching and administration.  Certainly hard science fiction appeals to me.  (I’ve seen people lamenting that hard SF has taken over the field.  Really?  Please point it out to me, because I’d like to read some of it.  Most of what I see from the big publishers is social justice wankery and message fiction disguised as hard SF.  There was a time when hard SF ruled, but that ship sailed quite a while ago from what I can tell.)

Personally, I don’t find adventure and hard SF incompatible.  I’ve got most of a novel written that’s a combination of hard science and sword and planet.  I just need to carve out the time to finish it.  I’m juggling too many short stories at the moment to try to tackle that.  But I also get that not everyone likes adventure just like not everyone likes more idea oriented science fiction.  And that’s fine.  There’s room enough for both.

Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944

I will go so far as to state that an author who knows his/her/its science can come up with some really good adventure scenarios.  After all, what is science but exploring the universe.  And exploration always involves risk and adventure.

Guys With Screwdrivers certainly has it’s place.  It shouldn’t be the end all and be all of the field.  Neither should adventure oriented fiction.  And Socially Relevant Message fiction certainly shouldn’t be.  There’s room for all of them, in the same story, even, if the author is good enough to pull it off.  (Many have tried, few have succeeded.)  The different styles and subgenres will vary in the number of proponents they have, and their relative popularity will change over time.  That’s  normal.  Popularity isn’t always the best measure of what’s best.  The two yardsticks are neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive.  They overlap, sure.

Me, I like Campbellian SF and will be reading more of it along with more of the pulp adventure science fiction, science fantasy, and sword and sorcery (along with detective fiction with lots of femme fatales).  This may be a sign of my impending geezerdom, but I’d rather read the old stuff, especially the stuff I read as a teenager than much of the new stuff.

Those of us who are pulp enthusiasts, we need to make sure we don’t break down and start squabbling with each other.  I don’t think we are.  What’s happening, as far as I can tell, is that we’re engaging in some helpful and healthy dialogue.  The field will only be the better for these types of discussions.  These are good discussions, and yes, even arguments, to have.  I’ll certainly be participating in them.

But there are people – editors and authors and readers – who despise us because we don’t like/read/write their approved type of fiction.  Case in point, an editor of a relatively new pulp oriented magazine tried to establish a dialogue with someone (not sure if he is an editor) at a long standing magazine in the comments of a post.  You can read about what happened here.  I won’t link to the original post.  I’m not going to give the dickwipe individual the traffic.  Let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of who are real enemies are.


23 thoughts on “In Defense of Guys with Screwdrivers

  1. Former Student

    ” Popularity isn’t always the best measure of what’s best. ”

    For some reason people keep watching Michael Bay’s Transformer movies.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I’ve found that my tastes have shifted as I’ve gotten older, becoming both more and less discriminating. More in that I have less patience for things I don’t enjoy and so choose what I read more carefully. Less in the sense that “this is an important book and I should read it” isn’t much of a consideration when choosing a book, the exception being if it is a title that has influenced the field over time. As far as subgenres, I can’t read just one type of thing. Something about the way my brain is wired. I get twitchy if I read a steady diet of one type of fiction and find myself picking up something completely different almost compulsively if I don’t put some variety in my reading.

      None of those habits or what I choose would meet with the approval of the thought police.

  2. Fletcher A Vredenburgh

    Good piece, Keith. Like DW, I’m in agreement with your short diagnosis of contemporary sf’s problem. That’s why the only sf I’ve read in years is The Three-Body Problem. It’s big science, like Vinge or Bear and it doesn’t make me feel like I’m being lectured at.

    My favorite sci-fi is a mix of hard sf and adventure from the likes of Dickson, Anderson, and Cherryh. Cherryh’s stuff has rock solid (save for FTL) science and high adrenaline action at the same time. According to some wags, that’s what, Bronze Age sf? Whatever.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Fletcher. I’ve not read The Three Body Problem yet, but it’s on my list. Your tastes align with mine pretty well, so I’m going to move it up in priority. I like Dickson and love Anderson. I’ll be trying to work more of both of them in this year. I went through a Cherryh phase in my 30s, and liked most of what I read. I need to get back to her.

      As far as Bronze Age, I see the point some of these guys are trying to make. There have always been folks whose writing is out of step with the trends of the field, and guys like you and I gravitate to what we like rather than what we’re told to like. Often what we like isn’t in fashion. I don’t know that Jones and some of the others are that far off as far as the general trends go. He even says more than once there are plenty of exceptions. There seems to be more books and stories that are to my liking in the older stuff than the newer stuff. (See the post that just went live for a deeper exploration of why that is.) I just know that after the New Wave, there aren’t nearly as many writers I enjoy as there were before.

    2. deuce

      @Fletcher: Cherryh is a fan of Merritt and REH just as much as she is the Campbelline guys. She’s an Okie country girl who can read Latin — and it shows. She recently received an SF award and told the audience she never considered herself a “woman’s writer”.

      There have been plenty of pulp-loving outliers since the ’60s, but they are generally ignored compared to the ones who have followed the Narrative. Despite that recent award, who do you think a young woman writer today would cite as a great female SF writer from the ’70s? Cherryh or Russ (or Le Guin or, Crom forbid, Bradley)? Leigh Brackett has been practically read out of the history of “Feminist SF”.

      1. Keith West Post author

        I’d venture that Russ, McIntyre, Wilhelm, Sargent, and Le Guin, and many of the other feminist icons of the 70s have been forgotten by the younger generation, those under the age of, say, 30. Much of their work is out of print, and there seems to be an almost intentional refusal to read writers from before some arbitrary year because of a misplaced belief that they’re all some type of -ist.

      2. Fletcher Vredenburgh

        I never got hooked on the seemingly endless Foreigner series (18 freakin’ books now!), but I’ve read the Chanur books 3 or 4 times. I’ve only read a little of her fantasy, but it’s pretty top-notch, too. I suspect, sadly, you’re right regarding the place of Cherryh vs. Russ.

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  5. Randy Stafford

    It does come down to taste, what the reader wants out of the fantastic genres: adventure, social commentary, satire, intellectual speculation, and technological prediction.

    Ideally, you’d get all at once, but that doesn’t happen very often.

    While I largely agree with the politics of the Castalia House crew, they often sound like an all or nothing approach. It rather puts me in my mind of the cyberpunks and their 1980s proclamations about how they were going to save sf. Instead, cyberpunk just became another mode to operate in.

    Still, I wish the new pulp people well in their creative endeavors and dragging some unjustly forgotten authors out into the light again — even if I don’t buy all their conclusions.

  6. deuce

    I do think it’s a bit premature to get too worked up over some comments on a blog post. People are venting. It felt very good for me, personally, to fire off a few rounds in the general direction of Asimov’s ectoplasm. I’d spent years biting my tongue because people would bitch if you said anything against one of the “Big Three”. Other than the I, ROBOT collection, everything else from Azzy can be memory-holed for all I care. Heinlein had some real talent, Clarke was hit or miss and Asimov was flat-out boring. He was also an arrogant prick with passive aggressive issues — none of which I knew about when I realized what a tedious “storyteller” he was:

    I’ll take Poul Anderson over ANY of the so-called “Big Three” any day of the year. If I was going to construct a “Big Three” from the so-called “Golden Age” of JWC the First, it would have Poul at the top. Just as good of science as ANYBODY of that era and an incredible storyteller with a much better sense about the nature of humanity than any of the “Three”. After that, it would be hard to narrow down the choices between Brackett, Vance, Herbert, Heinlein and Dickson. The “Big Six” sounds good to me.

    Guess what? Every one of my choices admired ERB, Merritt or both. Several were also REH fans. That says a lot, IMO. Where Azzy and Clarke were coming from, I don’t particularly want to go.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I agree with you completely about Anderson in terms of quality, storytelling, and understanding of human nature, but didn’t he get started near the end of the so-called Golden Age (1938-1950)? Likewise for Vance, Dickson, and Herbert. They may have started writing in the 40s, but they didn’t hit their stride until the 50s and 60s. By the late 40s, I would say Thrilling Wonder was at least as good as Astounding.

      Limiting my selections to the 40s, Kuttner and Moore, both individually but especially collaboratively, would be in my Big Three. Brackett for sure. IMO Ray Bradbury did his best work in that time period; his later stuff didn’t do as much for me. Then there’s Eric Frank Russell and Fritz Leiber. Leiber’s later work, especially Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, has overshadowed some of his work from the 40s, but he still did some good stuff. Heinlein was solid in the 40s. And let’s not forget Theodore Sturgeon. No, I can’t limit myself to 3 either.

      Dickson is hit and miss with me. Some of his stuff I really like. Others not so much. I’ve only read Dune and the Santaroga Barrier from Herbert. Most of what I’ve read by Vance was from the late 50s and 60s. Loved the Demon Prince novels. It’s been too long since I’ve read Vance. Need to read more of him.

      I read a good bit of Clarke’s short stories when I was younger, and a few novels; Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, The Sands of Mars, 2001, and The Fountains of Paradise. Haven’t read him in years.

      I read a lot of Asimov as a teenager and undergraduate and pretty much liked everything I read. About 16 years ago I read a collection (Robot Dreams?) and found most of the stories to be dull. Last year I started The Winds of Change, just reading one or two at a time. I’m not finished, but they weren’t too bad. Some of the stories were pretty dated in terms of technology, especially computer technology, though.

      Coming from a scientific background, I’ve always liked some of the more hard science oriented writers, although I can understand how many of them are an acquired taste and aren’t for everybody.

      Finally, I agree that the writers who liked ERB, REH, and Merritt are among the ones I really like.

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