NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 162, Summer, 2004.
MIKE: You and I disagree on a hell of a lot of things, which is at least partly the basis of this column. I think we have shown over the previous 22 Dialogues that Rudyard Kipling may have been just a tad optimistic about how many ways there are of constructing tribal lays, but I think we’ve clearly shown there are at least two viable and defensible ones: yours and mine.
And now we come to a subject on which I think we will agree—(No, not Sophia Loren; I mean still another subject)—and that subject has to do with the heroes of science fiction. I’m not talking about writers like Robert A. Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or any of the others who put science fiction on the map and made us millions of new readers, or about editors like John Campbell who dragged science fiction, almost against its will, into the mid- 20th Century. Their contributions are remarkable, no question about it—but they mainly benefited the readers, which is certainly not a bad thing, since it is the readers who keep us all in business.
And science fiction is a business, at least to the readers of the SFWA Bulletin, and there have been a lot of unsung heroes who have helped make it a better place for us to work. I think nobody will mind if we stop arguing for an issue and give some long-overdue credit to some of those heroes.
I’ll start with a couple of members of the old Futurian club.
The first is Donald A. Wollheim. Not because of his editing, which extended over half a century, and included far more brilliant works of fiction than he’s generally credited with (including yours). Not even because he founded a successful and still viable mass market science fiction publishing company. No, Don Wollheim is a hero because back in the 1930s he went to court for ten dollars.
Hugo Gernsback loved to publish science fiction. He loved to buy it from writers. He loved to promote it. For all I know, he loved to edit it. What he didn’t love to do was pay for it. He treated his writers like unpaid coolie labor. It was Wollheim who showed his fellow coolies in this then-embryonic field that we didn’t have to put up with that abuse. When Gernsback accepted one of Wollheim’s stories and ignored his requests for payment, Wollheim went to court and won a judgment—and no solvent publisher has pulled that stunt since then. It was a precedent that unquestionably made things better for all of us who came after him.
The other Futurian hero was Isaac Asimov. Not for being the national treasure he became, not for anything he wrote, not for the non-stop promotion of science fiction throughout his long life. No, it was for being proud of who he was and what he wrote. When John Campbell suggested that Isaac write under a Western European pseudonym, Isaac, who held Campbell in awe, nonetheless refused. He was not ashamed of being a Russian Jew, and—the reason he belongs on this list—he was not ashamed of writing science fiction. He was proud of it, and he wanted everyone to know that he, Isaac Asimov, wrote it. Prior to that, every writer who had been asked to hide behind pseudonyms had done so. After all, it was just pulp pap, so why make a fuss over it? It was Isaac who said that no, it wasn’t just pulp pap, and he won his fight, which made it a lot easier on those of us who followed him to hold up our heads and explain to the world at large that we weren’t just writing that crazy Buck Rogers stuff, that there was more to it than that.
I see you chomping at the bit, so let me take a coffee break and let you enshrine another hero or three.