NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 144, Summer, 2000.
MIKE: It’s common knowledge that John Campbell re-made the field of science fiction in his image (or in Heinlein’s, anyway). It wasn’t a “movement” because the concept didn’t exist then, or when Tony Boucher started asking for literature.
The first one I can think of that bore a name was the New Wave, which originated in Mike Moorcock’s New Worlds, and was initially imported to this side of the drink by Judith Merrill. It practically tore the field apart, and created enmities that exist to this day, although most of what was New to us was rather Old Hat to the mainstream.
But even since then, we’ve been quick — sometimes too quick — to spot and label movements within the field. The most obvious is Cyberpunk, which actually was a pretty clearly-defined movement, with William Gibson a mile and a half ahead of the pack.
But, courtesy of Michael Swanwick’s long critical article and chapbook, we’ve also had the Humanist movement, which in the Postmodern era is (he posits) the flip side of Cyberpunk. Thomas Disch defined the Labor Day Group, which seems to have been more of a political (within the field) movement than a literary one. Then, of course, we’ve got Dark Fantasy, a term that didn’t exist a decade ago. We’ve got military science fiction, which may or may not be a movement, but has rather clearly become a subgenre. So my question to the author of The Engines of the Night is: how many movements have we really had, and do they amount to anything more than marketing terms? And if they do, what do you suppose the next movement will be?
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BARRY: Movements? We don’t need no stinking movements. What we need are market position, wedges into the public, large or small pieces of the readership which can be reached. At one end there’s Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and their franchised derivations, meant to reach the widest possible audience, a significant fraction of the television and film audience looking for new adventures. St the other there’s what is now being called “niche publishing” . . . upscale anthologies of sexual liberations, reprints of classic/rediscovered science fiction, and so on. This is not a matter of ideology or social change, it is a concern — on the part of writers and publishers — with sales, with finding or holding onto an audience which is becoming elusive, fickle, and so often evanescent.
I’ve written about this before. Here is my word: atomization. Science fiction and fantasy have fragmented in the past two decades: they have lost a center, lost consensus. Without a center there is, of course, nothing against which to react; Moorcock’s New Worlds came out of a certain loathing for Carnell’s older version of the magazine and was also profoundly connected to the British class struggle, not quite as ideological as outsiders felt, rather a struggle over property rights. Dangerous Visions emerged from a hatred of late-Campbell Analog, its conservative ideology, its insistence (or Campbell’s insistence) on “heroes.” That atmosphere of reaction was pretty well understood at the time; I don’t know if it is apparent to readers under 40, coming to this work in reprint anthologies . . . but in the late 1960s there was a clear consensus and anti-consensus and everyone spoke more or less the same language.
But what has happened to science fiction in the past quarter of a century is quite similar to what happened to classical music somewhere around 1912, when Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, composed as a ballet score, forced its way into the repertory and when Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system emerged. Classical music lost a common language; the relatively stable situation which has existed from Bach through Mahler — there was a great range of composition but all of it proceeded from similar assumptions — was destroyed and almost a century later shows little promise of fusion. Science fiction had a common language: Thrilling Wonder may have spoken it crudely, Fantasy & Science Fiction more elegantly, Astounding somewhat politically, Galaxy sardonically and so on, but readers and writers pretty well shared a body of assumptions . . . science fiction was extrapolative, it was plot-based, character subordinate and so on. (Boucher and McComas simply turned that around for Fantasy & Science Fiction but it was pretty well understood that what was being conducted was a dialogue.) That’s just not the case now: there are dozens of categories and clans of science fiction and I have the sense that whereas in the 1950s every reader read through the whole range, there’s less overlap now. Gibson or Sterling fans tend to avoid Star Wars, readers of Asimov’s aren’t good prospects for DAW fantasy. A hundred flowers have bloomed or at least been categorized but they do not — to force a labored metaphor — grow in the same garden.
(I am eliding for the moment the large or largest issue having to do with the way in which category fantasy, once a minor appurtenance of science fiction, has now overtaken, consumed its USA progenitor . . . I’d suspect that over 50% of that category known to book dealers as “fantasy and science fiction” is fantasy. Fantasy itself has atomized no less than science fiction: medieval, off-world, high, low, sword and sorcery, etc. This may be the most significant story but just as this organization was founded as the Science Fiction Writers of America and its publications known as the SFWA rather than the SFFWA Bulletin and Forum, so am I engaged, hopefully, in addressing science fiction as the inclusive category and term, not fantasy.)
James Gunn, in 1983 on a panel I shared at the Baltimore World Convention, put it this way: “In the 1950s, a reader going over to the science fiction section of a large bookstore could be pretty sure that she could at random find a work which would suit her expectations. Whether she liked it or not, it would be recognizable as falling into the category of book she wanted. That’s just not the case now.” I disputed this for about five minutes, insisting that the core values held, but realized pretty soon how foolish all of this was and resigned my argument sina die.
Another way of addressing this is to say as I did in a eulogy eight years ago for the beloved and terribly missed Isaac Asimov that he represented the last presence or element in science fiction who somehow seemed to hold it all together — Frank Paul and F. Orlin Tremaine, John Campbell and Horace Gold, Fantastic Voyage and the Foundation Trilogy, the Hugo anthologies and the fiercely innovative authors appearing in Asimov’s SF Magazine in the 1980s, all of these fell somehow within his compass and while he walked among us he linked us all. With his passage, fusion was no longer possible: no foundation all the way down the line, as Saroyan noted in The Time of Your Life. (Clarke and Williamson, first-rank figures and influences, never had, didn’t want Isaac’s sheer presence, solidity, weight in the field. Clarke was overseas and Jack Williamson was more or less out of science fiction writing between 1957-1977 as he was fully engaged in his academic career.)
No foundation all the way down the line; no movements, lots of pop fantasies, classic reprints and innovation. A thousand flowers . . . a thousand voices. Where it all ends knows God, as Woolcott Gibbs said (also like Saroyan) in a different context.
The next movement, you ask? Well, Mike, what is the present movement or movements if you’re so smart?
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MIKE: I’m so smart I’m not even going to try to answer that.
Actually, the current movement, and it’s one which distresses me, seems to be commercially-inspired, and as such doesn’t really qualify as such. I’m speaking of course of the plethora of mediabooks — Trekbooks, Wookiebooks, Babblebooks, the whole range of them — that has essentially killed the midlist and reshaped the field.
It seems to me that each legitimate movement has been a matter of balancing a field that has gone overboard in one direction — a direction that was probably valid when the embarkation began, but which became less and less so over time.
Campbell’s view of science fiction was shaped by the shortcomings of Gernsback’s view: he felt it had the potential to be something more than a vehicle to get acne-faced boys interested in the wonders of science. And with Heinlein, Asimov, and the rest of his stable, he made it a highly-respectable form of pulp literature.
But then Tony Boucher took a look at the direction Campbell had pulled the field for a dozen years and decided that the cerebration and plotting were fine, but the writing was substandard, and he demanded mainstream literary values.
Mike Moorcock looked at what Boucher and Horace Gold had accomplished, and decided that bringing all this extrapolation and all these literary values to rather crude pulp stories about time travel and spaceships and the like was counter-productive, and he urged his writers to change their focus from outer space to inner space.
Cyberpunk is a just a continuation of reactive literature — to computers, to the idealism of Star Trek, to a field that took no notice of drugs and rock music and demonstrably corrupt world leaders and other recent icons.
So what, really, are the new trends? And I use the word “trends” advisedly; they only become “movements” when a group of writers or editors get together and decide, for artistic (not commercial) reasons to remake the field once again.
Well, right now, with fantasy taking over more than half the rack space, I think you’d probably have to look there first. Tolkein was the state of the art when the field got its own category label, rather than being pushed as another form of science fiction, and I’m not really cognizant of anyone making any huge changes in the form. Donaldson took a shot at it with his tormented Thomas Covenant, but one writer isn’t a movement, and the other variations on Tolkein all seem to go in their own directions, rather than the one he blazed with his bestsellers.
Possibly Dark Fantasy constitutes a movement, but I personally think it’s more of a marketing tool.
Is there one fantasist on the horizon who will influence future generations the way Ray Bradbury did in the late 1940s or Tolkein did in the 1960s? Perhaps, but if there is, I can’t spot him or her yet.
How about science fiction?
I think we’ve got a trend back to hard science and away from some of the major considerations of the New Wave, while simultaneously turning its back on the kind of future and protagonists that characterized Cyberpunk.
You think not? Just take the Red Planet. Here we’ve got Stan Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, each of which won a Hugo or a Nebula, plus his new collection, The Martians. We’ve got Greg Bear’s Nebula-winning Moving Mars. We’ve got Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race. We’ve got Ben Bova’s Mars and Back to Mars. Among less rigorous approaches, we’ve got Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars, and even Monty Python alum Eric Idle has gotten into the act with The Road to Mars. Now I put it to you: when’s the last time there were so many books in so short a time span about a single world not created by George Lucas or Gene Roddenbury?
Does that mean that hard science (or hard Martian science) is the next movement? Of course not. Been there, done that. Doing it better these days, but that’s still not a movement. To me, it’s indicative of a field beating time between movements, going with what has always worked, honed by picking up some of the best methodology of the various movements along the way, but still waiting for the next visionary to say: To hell with this crap, I’ll show them what they’ve been overlooking for more than a century.
So, Mister Critic, what have we been overlooking for more than a century?
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BARRY: What have we missed?
Well, here’s a short list: the billion-viewer televised moon landing, the globalization of the world economy, the collapse of the Soviet state, the infiltration of the computer into every aspect of our personal lives and at an even earlier chronological stage. Really, even 15 years ago, how much of this did science fiction see? I pointed out in Engines of the Night (1982) that as late as 1967, two years before the televised moon landing, the only science fiction writer to foresee it was Richard Wilson in a tiny short-short story in Galaxy and even in that context it was a throwaway idea. 1950s Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction stories gave us one version after another of the worldwide Facist or Communist state, the crumbling of differences and capitalist energy to the greyness in all those copies of Orwell’s Big Brother. A Gap store in Peking? MacDonald’s in Moscow? The Nike logo being displayed in your beloved Kenyan villages? Almost a blank. Analog was filled with satires of Communist mumbling and bumbling — usually by Christopher Anvil, often with Communists thinly masked as “aliens” — but foreknowledge of systemic collapse? Can’t recall.
The dodge has always been — we do get embarrassed by this every so often, usually in the Timelike mainstream media that have been kicking sand at our beloved genre for well over half a century — that science fiction is not a predictive medium, never was meant to be. “Science fiction is not a predictive medium,” Fred Pohl has noted, “except in the sense that some of its predictions were interpreted as warnings and therefore did not come true.” (I should remove the quote marks; this is a pretty good paraphrase, but a paraphrase it is.) Science fiction has always exercised the privilege of the Awful Warning story, the post-Hiroshima Astounding was so overwhelmed by stories of this kind (Sturgeon’s “Memorial” and “Thunder and Roses,” Merrill’s “That Only A Mother,” Poul Anderson’s “Tomorrow’s Children,” Sherred’s “E For Effort,” etc., etc.) that Campbell declared a moratorium. (Didn’t last. In the early 1950s there was Miller’s “Dumbwaiter” and H. Beam Piper’s “Day of the Moron” and on and on.) Perhaps part of the genre’s function, indeed its signatory part, has been as a kind of anti-predictive device. Make a prospective, logically extrapolated future awful enough and maybe it won’t happen.
But this presumes that people like Dean Acheson, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon Baines Johnson were loyal readers of science fiction or at least hung tight with people who were. (Richard Nixon as a member of First Fandom; Dean Acheson as an early winner of the Big Heart Award! Oh, there is a series which some contemporary Sheckley or Sheckley himself should consider.) I doubt if such is the case; in what we used to call the real world, the world of the Mundanes, things happen or unhappen according to their own schedule and their outcome has very little to do with science fiction. Which is another way of saying that our lousy — and it is truly rotten, let’s just admit that and be done with it — record as a predictive medium hasn’t had any meaningful consequence.
“What have we missed?” “Damned near everything.” That seems to be the substance of this exchange. “What’s the next movement?” Isn’t that just another way of asking, “What wrongheaded guesses are we going to make now?” Probably the same old bad guesses masked as stimulating new guesses . . . the resurgence of Communism, the resurgence (or maybe the utter collapse) of NASA, the assignment of a black hole to the suburbs . . . something like that.
But perhaps not. The next visionary — probably already working, probably already planning to get to Clarion within the next couple of years — might have a better grasp of a simple statement which Heinlein inferred and which Budrys, at least, stated explicitly somewhere: the future will all happen together. Everything changes, realignment occurs, new technology is imposed upon forms already changing. The blending, the amalgamation of the home computer and virtual reality, of the home computer and the emergence of serious privacy issues because all of the old sanctions have become unenforceable . . . that kind of thing. Science fiction historically has glimpsed the future as another version of the present — essentially static beneath the one or two extrapolative intrusions.
But it’s not essentially static. There has been more change — societal, technological, political — in the last ten years than in the twenty before that; more in these thirty than in the previous hundred; more in that 130 than the previous 500. It intensifies; it is exponential. Someone — no, some group of writers following in the lead of one or two, something like those in the wake of Gibson or, decades earlier, chasing Bester — will write that kind of exponential fiction.
Unless, of course, it’s all submerged by dragons, castles, alternate kingdoms and lost princes, unless it’s submerged by novelizations and pyramid spinoffs of Isaac’s or Arthur’s or Gibson’s world. Retrograde into the future: perhaps our future is that depicted in Silverberg’s Timehoppers: portable time machines available to the masses have enabled everyone to desert the environmentally unspeakable future and flee to a more commodious past. The end of the world then just a bunch of abandoned clothing hanging on a washline near the Texaco reservoir. Maybe it all ends in the derivative, exploitive fiction which mobs the bookstores and airport counters.
I guess that’s as good a definition — or demonstration — of decadence as I can find. Decadent science fiction: the future a troop of masked riders, tumbling with anxious weaponry through our devastated little tableland.
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MIKE: I agree that science fiction is not a predictive medium. The Daily Racing Form is a predictive medium, and on good days they’re wrong about 70% of the time. The various investors’ newsletters are predictive mediums, and they make the Racing Form look like it’s been blessed by the Biblical prophets.
I never could see what was so all-fired good about being a predictive medium anyway — especially in a field that, almost by definition, is dystopian. Which is to say that, also by definition, every author has a maximum of one Utopia to describe; if there’s more than one, then it isn’t a Utopia. Which means that once he gets it out of his system, if indeed he ever does, everything else he writes, every other future he envisions, must to some degree or another be Dystopian. Ain’t no future in it.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that if we start trying to predict the next movement, we’re going to be wrong and probably depressing.
So of course I’m willing to consider it just a bit more.
And since we began our dialogue, it has occurred to me that a lot of our “movements” weren’t really movements at all, until some critic or academic (or author) seeking a little notoriety declared that they were.
Take cyberpunk, for example. People were tying into computers in the early 1950s. Dan Galouye, who was far too good to be as forgotten as he’s become, wrote Simulacron-3 a third of a century ago, and despite the horrible movie they made from it last year, it was a legitimate predecessor of cyberpunk, a couple of decades ahead of Neuromancer. The cyber was always here, and the punk was borrowed from other fields and mediums.
The New Wave? Well, yeah, we weren’t into a lot of stylistic experimentation or introspection in the golden days of the quarter-of-a-cent-a-word pulps — but it doesn’t mean no one was. Theoretically, just uttering the words “James Joyce” should put fini to our claim of originality.
The more I think about it, the more I think our history should be told in terms of breakthroughs rather than movements. Doc Smith leaves the solar system and gives us the stars. Robert A. Heinlein shows us that H. G. Wells was wrong and that the future doesn’t happen one thing at a time, but that it breaks out all the hell over the place, all at once. Alfred Bester shows us how to breathe such new life into Crime and Punishment and The Count of Monte Cristo that when read today, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination still feel like they’re five years ahead of where the field’s at. Robert Sheckley spends the 1960s creating brilliant forms of humor that can only function as science fiction.
And not a single one of them started a movement. (Okay, Heinlein spawned a few dozen imitators with their own future histories, but if he started a movement, then only Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage was truly a card-carrying member of it.)
It seems upon reflection that movements, such as they are (and one thing they are is easily identified and defined) come not from breakthrough stories or concepts, but rather from stories or approaches that beg for more thought, more refinement, more extrapolation not of science fiction but of what the author was trying to accomplish.
Thus, an Effinger could read Gibson and say, Why can’t a Moslem country in North Africa have its equivalent of a sprawl? How would a Case function there? And Walter Jon Williams attacked it his own way, and so did Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan and Lewis Shiner . . . and suddenly there was enough stuff out there on the stands that we needed a word to define it. Gardner Dozois created the term “cyberpunk” and presto, now that we had a name, we had a “movement.”
Writers as divergent as Spinrad, Disch and Ellison could see what Moorcock and Ballard were doing with New Worlds and say, Ballard can’t experiment with every style, every approach, every introspection . . . but maybe I can do thus-and-so, not a copy of Ballard to be sure, but just as strong a rejection of Campbell’s notion of science fiction. And pretty soon 20 or 30 people are writing totally dissimilar rejections of Campbellian stories, and suddenly we have a movement whose stories are similar primarily in their fierce opposition to what one American editor liked to read and publish. What did they have in common? They opposed the old type of story. Therefore, they must be the new type of story. “New type” doesn’t roll off the tongue very well — but call it the “New Wave” (and now you can call its moribund opponent the Old Wave) and lo and behold, someone will pronounce it a Movement.
So what’s the next movement? Well, it won’t follow from some brilliant tour de force based on a world where effect does not follow cause, and it won’t take off from a brilliant fictional invention like the late Bob Shaw’s slow glass. It’s much more likely to come from someone rediscovering . . . oh, I don’t know . . . say Jane Austen’s novels, and finding a way to bring her sensibilities to science fiction. And the movement won’t all be Austen aficionados . . . that becomes a ghetto. But one author will do the same for Mallory, another for Dickens, a third for Thackery, two more for the Brontes, and so on, until there is a large enough (and academically or commercially viable enough) body of work that people can speak of it as almost a sub-genre. Then someone will coin a catchy name for it, and voila — we’ve got our movement.
(A few bold writers will strike out on their own and bring the French Romantic novel to science fiction. They’ll be followed by the science fictional versions of War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. And the entire movement will collapse when SF’s favorite literary writer — whoever it is at that time — writes a 150,000-word novel in haiku form.)
Anyway, I’d not really given it much thought before we started this dialogue — but that’s the way movements happen. I’d always assumed it was one brilliant writer leading the way — probably because that’s what seemed on the surface to have happened with Gibson and cyberpunk — but upon further consideration, Moby Dick and Huck Finn and Catch-22 don’t start movements. It’s the books that leave a little something unsaid, something unmined, something for the next writers in line to explore.
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.