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.
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.
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.