Sci-Fi Comes of Age

Weighing in on Wells versus Verne

Published: Sep 30 2016, 01:01:am

Friday, February 18, 1972.

It is odd to be asked whether science fiction is a literature of ideas. Far from doubting that it is, I would like to suggest that it is the only literature of relevant ideas . . . the ideas that count today.
— Isaac Asimov, quoted in
The Intellectual Digest.

GONE ARE THE DAYS of the defensive science-fiction fan, furtively hiding his copy of Astounding Tales between the foundation blocks of the garage. Gone, too, is the time when fans would gather to seriously discuss the relationship between their favourite reading and “mainstream” literature.    
     Today [February 18, 1972], as Vancouver’s second annual science-fiction convention opens in the Biltmore Hotel, there are few fans who would not agree with Dr. Asimov. For them sf no longer relates to mainstream, it is mainstream.    
     According to Daniel Say, past president of the Simon Fraser University Science-Fiction Society and editor of a local fan magazine, the growing academic interest in sf proves the fans’ point. Asimov, writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nine years ago [1963], deplored English teachers who “not only denounce science fiction, but penalize the student who makes use of a science-fiction theme in writing a composition.”
    The Boston biochemist made the then-revolutionary suggestion that science fiction be made "freely available in school libraries.” Actually, the machinery was already in motion.     In 1959, the Modern Languages Association had granted the genre its first official academic recognition, setting up a small section within its own scholarly journal devoted to sf studies.
    Today [1972], the association estimates, there are nearly 200 courses in science fiction being offered at colleges in the U.S. and Canada. One of the most recent is called The Problem of God in Science-Fiction, currently being taught by Rev. Arthur Gibson, chairman of religious studies at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.
    Father Gibson chose science fiction “for the same reason I taught a course in the theology of Ingmar Bergman’s films last year. Science fiction and films are two vehicles of theological thought that are peculiar to our age.
    “The theologian doesn’t think about God in a vacuum,” he said. “He has to take account of the insights and ways of communicating that belong to the world about him.”
    Fans deny that there is anything faddish about the current boom in sf studies. They point to the number of academic libraries that have quietly been assembling sf collections, among them the University of British Columbia.
    Says the UBC Library’s John McKinlay: “Several years ago, UBC bought a small collection of sf magazines previously belonging to Thomas Watson. There were some 30 titles and about 380 issues, and they now reside in the care of Special Collections.”
    In addition to UBC, at least two Canadian and 22 U.S. universities are actively acquiring sf. They are interested, says McKinlay, in “a classic case of an underground literature.”
    Jack Williamson, professor of English at Eastern New Mexico University, makes a more sweeping claim. Science fiction, he says, is merely coming home. “It can reasonably claim the world’s first university, the Academy at Athens, as its ancestral home, and Plato himself for a remote forefather,” says Williamson.
    “Plato used his dialogues to launch two basic but conflicting ideas that still animate much science fiction. His Republic, a blueprint for an ideal state, expresses the optimistic faith that applied human reason can create a better world. Two later dialogues, Timaios and Kritias, tell the legend of lost Atlantis, with its pessimistic implication that even the most perfect world is not forever.”
    Modern science fiction has generally been more timid about tracing its own roots. Traditionally fans have called editor Hugo Gernsback “the father of science fiction,” and the first issue of his Amazing Stories magazine (April, 1926) its birthplace.
    More accurately, Gernsback was the founder of sf’s pulp tradition, a mixed blessing that was responsible both for the development of the genre’s so-called Golden Age, and the image of lurid escapism that it has never effectively shed.
    It also provided a rallying point for organized fandom. Before Gernsback created “scientifiction,” fan circles had grown up around the major authors of scientific romance.
     In England, the centre of attention was Herbert George Wells. In the U.S., Jules Verne and New England’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
    As a method of communicating their mutual enthusiasm, the fans picked up the late 19th century idea of an amateur press, and began producing fan magazines or “fanzines.” By 1939, they had generated enough momentum to organize Nycon (New York Convention), the first World Science-Fiction Convention.
    In 1953, the World Science-Fiction Convention founded the Hugo Awards (named for Gernsback), a set of annual awards given to the year’s “best” accomplishments in the sf field. Unlike most major literary awards, the Hugos are not voted upon by committees of authors or critics, but by the readers themselves.
    The convention tradition has continued to this day. This year 22 science-fiction conventions are scheduled, 15 in the U.S. (including the Los Angeles Worldcon), and seven in other countries, including this weekend's Vancouver convention.
    Conventions serve a variety of purposes, not the least of them being entertainment. Although our local convention will be a frankly intellectual event — it is co-sponsored by the science-fiction societies of UBC and SFU — the social aspect has not been forgotten.
    Fan tradition dictates that “cons” get off to a rousing start with a science-fiction masquerade. Says SFU’s Gillian Arsenault: “We thought it would add to the extraterrestrial nature of the proceedings if the convention members came on Friday dressed as their favourite sf character.”
    Designed as a social ice-breaker, the costume party will wind up with a number of small prizes for best efforts. One set of prizes that won’t be given are the controversial Elron Awards, a set of dubious-achievement honours instituted at last April’s gathering.
    According to UBC’s Mike Bailey, the awards — a bronzed lemon mounted on a plywood base — were “not supposed to be taken seriously.” An alarming number of U.S. fans failed to see the joke, though, and response in the fan press was depressingly vitriolic.
    This year, Bailey has promised to wind up the convention on a more serious note, and has been preparing a suitably sincere study of Forgotten Fantasy Heroes. Major attention, he says, will be paid to Sondar of Skarn, the creaton of the immortal Lanford M. Hoase.
    The Hoase job notwithstanding, the convention promises to be a reasonably serious affair, reflecting to a great degree the current crisis within science fiction itself. At this moment, says journalist Richard Lupoff, there is “a schism between those who maintain science-fiction’s traditional values and others with a very different outlook.
    “It is more than a generation gap, it is a serious philosophical confrontation mirroring that in the larger society.”
    Lupoff describes the two camps in terms of their approach to basic human issues. The traditionalists, he says, are Vernian, writing and believing the optimistic “engineer's fiction” characteristic of Jules Verne.
    Opposing them are the Wellsians, the anti-utopians who question and quibble over social issues. Isaac Asimov, whom Lupoff numbers among the Wellsians, takes a different point of view.
    “(Science fiction) has grown sufficiently popular and respectable, since the days of Sputnik, for people to wish to enter it as a purely literary field. And, once that becomes a motive, the writers don’t need to know science any more.
    “To write purely literary science fiction, one returns to the ‘eternal verities,’ but surrounds them with some of the verbiage of science fiction, together with a bit of the new stylistic experimentation one comes across in the mainstream, and with some of the explicit sex that is now in fashion.
    “And this is what some peopte in science fiction call ‘the new wave’. To me, it seems that the new wave merely attempts to reduce real science-fiction to the tasteless pap of the mainstream.”
    The issue is far from simple. Sf’s “Golden Age” ran from the late 1930s until the early 1950s. It was an age shaped by the needs of the monthly magazine market and, in particular, by the requirements of a single gifted editor, John W. Campbell.
    It was an age of short stories and serials, and much of the prose style and plot direction was determined by word counts and cliffhanger endings. The development of the paperback, and the founding of a science-fiction book club, opened up new markets and ushered in a new age.
    Inevitably the Vancouver conventioneers are going to take sides, although the convention program plainly favours the new wave Wellsians. The main event Friday evening will be a showing of the 1936 motion picture Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel, The Shape of Things to Come.
    Director William Cameron Menzies’s epic feature contained Wells’s prewar prophecy of man’s future. In it he foresaw a devastating aerial war reducing civilization to ruins and a benevolent technocratic dictatorship restoring it again.
    The film screening is designed to lead into Saturday morning’s events: a talk by SFU English Professor Mason Harris entitled Wells’s Time Machine — The Fourth Dimension as Prophecy, and a panel discussion focused on Things to Come.
    The afternoon session continues the thoughtful  mood. SFU Russian Professor Murray Schoolbraid will present his findings on Alexander Belyaev, the Soviet Jules Verne, while a second panel will take up contemporary sf’s thorniest issue: Can SF Deal Adequately with the Social Consequences of Technology?
    Although both panels are made up of graduate and graduated students, no one at the convention is better qualified to speak to the issue than Berkeley dropout Philip Kindred Dick.
    Dick, 43, is the author of 30 novels and more than 110 short stories. He is also the convention’s guest of honour. Thursday, he was a luncheon guest at UBC’s faculty club and during the afternoon he lectured groups of second-, third-and fourth-year students.
    Saturday evening he speaks to the convention on the topic of The Human and the Android — the contrast between the authentic person and the reflex machine.
    Dick’s fellow science-fiction writers have paid tribute to him in a number of ways, calling him “one of the newest of the ‘old pros’,” “the first of the new ‘wave’,” and “the most consistently brilliant sf writer in the world.” Dick made his writing debut in 1951 shortly after leaving the University of California on what he considered a matter of principle.
     “As a state-supported college,” he explains,  “the university required ROTC (U.S. Army Reserve Officers Training). I refused to participate and dropped out.”
    In an interview with UBC’s Mike Bailey, Dick said, “I did not intend to become an sf writer, but a fantasy and avant-garde writer. The fantasy sold, but did not pay. The avant garde stuff was no good. The sf sold . . . ”
    Although Dick was well acquainted with the “old sf,” his ideas and his prose style were his own. He did not write adventure, preferring movement in the inner mind rather than in outer space.
    His mental excursions were helped along by the emotional momentum of four broken marriages and, finally, a selection of hallucinogenic drugs. Recently, Dick has been living in San Raphael, California, gathering strength and material for what he sometimes calls his “final” book.
    His recent letters to various people connected with the local sf convention have the tone of deep weariness and relentless sincerity.
    To Hugo-winning author Ursula K. LeGuin, guest of honour at last year’s Vancouver convention, he wrote: “All three of us (LeGuin, Dick and Fritz Leiber) to an extent write about evil—as for instance I did in The Three Stigmata (of Palmer Eldritch).
    “We are really concerned with what is good, the genuinely good, that which is overall worth our lives and work, our efforts both as writers and persons. I mean to talk about this at Vancouver in February.
    “That is, I mean to discuss, as specifically as I can, what I find in the world that is evil . . . and that, only that I may then depict what most matters: what I believe in. There can be no awareness of evil without an abiding awareness of what is of positive value, I think.
    “And, in addition to talking about it, I want, if I can, to bring with me a little girl who embodies for me what I believe in and am working to bring about as a kind of person — a 19-year-old friend of mine, Kathy Demuelle.”
    To Bailey, he contributed a self-profile. Written in the third person, it concluded: “He is currently working day and night on his new novel simply called Kathy, named after the girl he is bringing with him to the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention Feb. 16.
    “He had meant to bring with him someone representing the youth of America, but Kathy, he feels, represents more: all youth, all life to come in later time. The novel really does not exist as yet, except in his head, but Kathy does, and he hopes the people at the convention will welcome her and like her.
     “About her, the people of the future world such as her, which he is sure will someday be, he would say this, quoting from an autobiographical sketch which he wrote but never got around to mailing off: ‘His greatest fear is that the dear, fine, quiet gentle people here and there who cheered him and encouraged him and comforted him when he was ready to give up will be forgotten while he will be remembered.’ He would have it the other way.”
    Convention members do not seriously expect any resolution on the issue of Verne versus Wells, or new versus old wave. They have no doubt, though, that Philip K. Dick will present a deeply moving, memorable address.
    And then there will be parties, the planners say, far into the night. They will celebrate the day, coming soon, fandom’s true believers say, when science-fiction is universally recognized as the genuine mythology of technological man.
    In the meantime, they’ll plan Vancon, Vancouver’s bid for the 1975 World Science-Fiction Convention.

The above is a restored version of a Province feature by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The Sixties were coming to an end. The cultural decade — the time between the 1963 Kennedy assassination and  the 1974 Nixon resignation — was a transitional time, both for institutions and individuals. In April 1971, I’d covered the first Vancouver SF Convention, held over two days at the Georgia Hotel. At the time, I was working as a feature writer in the paper’s entertainment/arts department. In mid-February 1972, I’d taken on a new assignment, becoming The Province’s film critic. The above item, previewing the second VCON, was my last in the old job. Its headline, “Science Fiction Comes of Age,” made the point that science fiction had entered the cultural mainstream, an idea no longer up for debate because, well, it’s 2016. It was published the day after my first column in the new job, a review of director Stanley Kubrick’s controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s science-fiction classic, A Clockwork Orange.
    Going through a transition of his own was the convention’s guest of honour, Philip K. Dick. I attended the event to report on his address, the one that I’d said would be “deeply moving (and) memorable.” It was that, and today it is often cited by scholars studying Dick’s philosophical influence on the popular culture. Even so, the headline on my Monday morning story focused, not on the speech, but on the breaking news: “Canada Gains A Noted Science Fiction Writer.”
     Before the assembled fans, Dick had announced his intention to stay on and to make Vancouver his new home. There is more to that story, of course, and I’ll add some personal details about it in future Reeling Back postings. Until then, I recommend a visit to the Philip K. Dick Fan Site, where Frank Bertrand has posted my “long-lost article” from February 21, 1972. I also recommend VCON 41 chairman R. Graeme Cameron’s column on the Amazing Stories website called Mad Flight of a Manic Phoenix, or: Philip K. Dick in Vancouver. Dick’s Vancouver stay ended in late April 1972, with his return to California.

See also: The Afterword to my review of director Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner  (based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) features a Phil Dick filmography.