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Guest Editorial -
NEW WORLDS number 133, August 1963

from this month the subject matter of our guest editorials takes a subtle change, being more an analysis of science fiction writing than a diagnosis in the minds of our various contributors


speaking for myself
by robert presslie

Right from the start of these guest editorials two questions have intruded time and time again. A variety of writers have shown immense preoccupation with these questions. They have kicked them about, chewed them to pieces and generally rent them asunder as if there was a precious kernel at the heart of them—a kernel of such shining truth that its discovery must, like a Philosopher's Stone, transmute science fiction from its present base material to lambent golden literature.

' What is wrong with science fiction today ?' has been one cry. The other interrogates : '‘Where is the old sense of wonder ?' with such a sinister tone of accusation that there would be no surprise if it was followed by,' Nobody leaves this room till we find it !'

Both these questions are arrogantly presumptive. Both are loaded with the presupposition that there is something wrong with science fiction and that there is no sense of wonder in today's science fiction writing and both assumptions are a load of you-know-what.

Take the first question :' What is wrong with science fiction?' Answer : Nothing. Because it can be argued that there is nothing wrong with anything—it all depends on how you look at it. Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau were as wrong as hell to their involuntary tenants. But they served their purpose most efficiently as far as the camp commandants were concerned. In other words, wrongness is in the mind of the observer. If the subject or object in question measures up to what the observer wants then it is right and proper. If it is not what is wanted then it is wrong.

So if the question, ' What is wrong with science fiction ?' is valid, it follows that the public is not getting what it wants. This seems to be a reasonable conclusion and would indicate that if Joe Public got what he wanted all would be well again. But anybody with the teeniest morsel of nous can see the next highly dangerous question coming up : ' Just what does Joe Public want ?'

Let's take a look at the larger family to which Joe Public belongs. On the 13th December, 1962, America launched a space satellite called Relay, a successor to the earlier Telstar. Next morning, in the early editions of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch the public's taste was evaluated as follows :

A Yorkshire sportsman on cricket location in Australia was having trouble with his back. The Daily Mirror devoted 47 square inches to Mr. Trueman's lumbar aches and pains ; the news of Relay was given all of one and a half sq. ins., on the bottom left corner of the back page. The Daily Sketch apparently had a finger on the same pulse. It measured the public's frenzy for word of the condition of Trueman's vertebrae at exactly the same level—47| sq. ins. But evidently any flicker of scientific interest was too feeble for the Sketch to detect. Relay was not mentioned.

Now, without any wish to malign the redoubtable Freddie, surely Relay's intended value to the world in general was inestimably greater than the result of a cricketer's spinal X-ray. And it is not only the number of zeros in the cost of Relay that matters. It is the background of centuries of learning that went into the making of Relay, the tremendous achievement of hurling it into orbit, the benefits to mankind that can result from greater, more personal intercommunication. Yet one paper measures the public interest at six lines, the other at nothing. And before anybody condemns the newspapers let them consider that newspapers have to sell to exist; to sell, they have to print what the public wants to read. Ergo, the public simply does not want to know about scientific projects such as communications satellites. The public would sooner have a kick-by-kick description of a Real Madrid —Barcelona encounter.

You may or may not agree with this conclusion. But you will almost certainly be thinking something like this : ' That's all very well but science fiction readers are different. All that stuff about Trueman and Relay is probably true about the public at large but not about us.'

The whole point is that it does apply. Science fiction readers are people and people are what the public is made up of. The above account may not give a true picture of a science fiction fan's preferences. But it does answer the question about the disappearance of the sense of wonder. The sense of wonder has not gone from s-f writing. It has gone from its readers.

There is an experiment you can try to prove this assertion. Ask a sports enthusiast how many men have been in space. He will give you the name of Gagarin, then a blank look. Being fair, ask a science fiction fan how many men have run the mile in less than four minutes. Roger Bannister's name will spring to his lips and that will be that. In each case, in a different context, the sense of wonder has been lost. The men who first made the respective achievements are remembered, the memory of the glorious moment of achievement lingers faintly on, but for subsequent duplications of the same marvels there is little interest and less sense of wonder.

Maybe we live in an age of too many miracles and our senses are numbed. Maybe it is the greater pace of life today or the super-abundance of distractions. Whatever the cause this much is clear : it is from us, the people—in or out of s-f—from whom the sense of wonder has gone.

This does a lot to substantiate the assertion that there is nothing wrong with science fiction as served up today. It is different to the old stuff, grant you. But dammit, being different does not mean that it has deteriorated. If Lenoir could suddenly leap forward a century ahead of his time and confront you with bubbling enthusiasm about the internal combustion engine he had perfected you would not be at all impressed by his invention. It is too late to be impressed by i/c engines. We have had them for a hundred years. So, to a degree, it must be with science fiction. There was a first story about flight into space, a first story with robotic subjects, a first story about extra sensory perception. Whatever the theme, there can only be one first. After that come the variations on the themes and just because a story is not a first this has nothing to do with its quality. It has every chance of being better. The first sewing machine, the first antibiotic, the first anything was never the best. Penicillin was and is a wonderful drug. It was a first. But no doctor on earth would withhold the superior tetracycline from a pneumonia patient simply because it was not the first antibiotic to be discovered.

So it is with modern science fiction. It is too late for a story to be a first. It may look like a first but a little digging will disclose that somebody has been there before, in all probability without the modern author knowing it. Nobody in their right senses plagiarises.

Digestible or not the fact must be swallowed that you cannot have the marvellous old stories more than once. Be thankful, even reverent, that the field was opened up. But do not be blind to what is going on today. Modern s-f is different because it is developing and it will go on developing as writers strive for new ways to express what they have to say and wider boundaries in which to say them. Nobody actually reads a story by John Smith and thinks : that's a good style, an interesting plot, I must copy it. What happens is that Smith's story triggers off new ideas in an author's mind, ideas which he tries to set down in what he hopes is a better way than Smith's. He may not succeed but the point is that he tries and in trying he is con­tributing something, no matter how small, to the development of science fiction.

What is more, he is today granted the wider boundaries he asks for. There are no longer any forbidden subjects. For­bidden treatments of tricky subjects perhaps, but forbidden only in so far as not to offend. There is however one subject which is peculiar in that it is the reader who forbids it. This is the one called Love Interest.

Who are we going to blame for that one ? Is it entirely the readers' fault ? And if so, do you explain the taboo by saying s-f is mostly read by youngsters and youngsters want blood and thunder in preference to adult human relationships ? Anybody jumping to that conclusion would be dead wrong. We have had more than one reader census to prove that the average s-f consumer is no callow youth. So it must be the writers who are at fault. The bad smell produced by any love interest hitherto embodied in s-f can only have come from bad writing. It would seem that s-f writers are not capable of combining a strong plot, a legitimate scientific background, characterisation in depth and romantic relationships all in one go. And that's a fact.

Women, when they are grudgingly permitted a place in a story, are invariably badly drawn. So, to dodge a difficult task most writers leave them out with the result that a stranger to s-f must get the impression that we have dispensed with one of the sexes. Our heroes and villains appear to be begat of no woman and they lust not because they have sublimated their energies for the sake of plot.

But I sincerely believe there's going to be some changes made. I'll tell you why.

In the beginning writers used the broad canvas. They splashed this canvas with new scientific ideas, new hypotheses, action galore. They spread their stories across great galaxies or across eons of time. This was the day of the sense of wonder.

And today ? Today we find writers looking at things with a finer focus. Instead of the galactic background he pins himself to one planet, even to one street of one town thereon. By doing this he can divert more of his talents to characterisation. The cardboard hero is beginning to breathe. It won't be long before he wants company. Female company. She may be part of the plot or subsidiary to it or perhaps only tacitly understood to belong to the man's life before and after the incidents reported in the story.

There is a paradox in all this. Although the fine focus technique results in more being written about less, there is at the same time a greater economy of words. Look up some of the old writers. They could be pretty verbose.

To make any accurate prediction on the form of future s-f is impossible. But the fact that it is in a state of flux should be satisfaction enough for anyone. You won't like all of the changes. Nobody ever does. But let's have a little peace around the place. Take a look at the changes taking place, analyse them, figure what the writer is trying to tell you—and be content. Because it is the customer (as well as himself) that the writer is trying to please. Every time he introduces the tiniest of innovations he runs the risk of mass unpopularity. But at least he isn't scared to try. Why should you be scared to go along with him ?

robert presslie