NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 150, Summer, 2001.
MIKE: Literary influences are a tricky thing to detect; Sam Moskowitz proved that by being wrong so many times about so many writers.
But perhaps they’re a little easier to detect when considering the field as a whole, rather than any individual writers.
We go back more than a century now, no matter how you define our beginnings. There’s Wells and Verne back there in our prehistory, Mary Shelly surely, and you’d probably have to include H. Rider Haggard. There are less obvious ones, like George Allen England, and some who are wildly popular yet scorned by the academics, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Doc Smith.
There are “Golden Age” writers galore—Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, de Camp, Simak, Kuttner, Clarke. There are the New Wavers and the literary craftsmen—Ballard, Silverberg, Ellison, yourself, Spinrad. There’s certainly William Gibson.
Among the editors, for better or worse, there’s Gernsback, Campbell, Boucher, Gold, Merrill, Moorcock, Judy-Lynn del Rey, Dozois, a ton of others.
We’ll save the Bad Influences (and the outraged screams, and the threat of lawsuits) until next issue. This time we’ll concentrate on the Good ones.
So, off the top of your head, who are the very best (as influences, not necessarily as writers or editors), and why?
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BARRY: Big question. Wide-ranging as they say. Writers, truly—and good writers the moreso—do not have one influence but thousands; they are influenced by everyone they have ever known, everything they have ever (directly or indirectly) experienced, everything they have ever thought.
Of course there are gradations . . . John Campbell and J.D. Salinger, for instance, have influenced me more than Roger Phillips Graham or J.T. MacIntosh; my father influenced me more than my first cousin Jessel Finney, the Professor of Geology at the Colorado School of Mines. Nonetheless, Graham’s nasty turn on Kuttner’s “The Cure” in his one famous story, “The Yellow Pill,” shows up in at least one short story of mine (title on request). And Jessel Finney by almost getting me through freshman geology in one tutorial session (failing until then I got a 75 on the final but my cumulative average was still too low) taught me things about sedimentation and the essential inequity of life which still peer at me around corners 44 years later. Everything touches us whether we know it at the time or not. “Everybody knows everything, it’s just a question of when if ever they are prepared to know it.” Dry metaphysics for a cold winter morning.
We can talk about personal influences and I can as you already infer give you a long list of writers and editors who have been to varying degrees crucial, we can talk about more general influence upon the field of science fiction and here the names of Campbell, Gold, Boucher and perhaps the editorial Fred Pohl are foremost in all of the eras succeeding Gernsback. Each of them is more influential than any writer because they selected and framed the work of the writers: Asimov noted over and again that Campbell had as much or more to do with the Foundation or the Robotics series than Asimov himself; certainly it was Campbell’s series mentality which directed and guided the linked histories and speculations of Van Vogt, Asimov, Heinlein and most of the writers for Astounding in the l940’s. A decade later Horace Gold’s idiosyncratic and furiously technophobic and psychiatric vision brought an enormous body of work by Bester, Sheckley, Pohl, Klass, which was wholly under his influence and in turn influenced everything which follows. Which is all a long way, perhaps, of saying that the primary influences in the field of science fiction (as opposed to literary fiction or even fantasy) have in my opinion been editorial.
Are those influences “good”? Well, they’re irreplaceable and so is almost all of the work I’ve mentioned. So sure, they were good.
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MIKE: I had in mind something a little more specific than saying that everyone who ever did anything influenced everyone who ever knew about it.
For example, I think Stanley Weinbaum, for all the problems he had pushing a noun up against a verb with any grace, had an enormously beneficial influence on the field. Prior to him, most aliens were either bug-eyed monsters intent on tearing the heroine’s clothes off, destroying the Earth, or both—or else they were the hero’s sidekicks, who looked a little different but thought and spoke pretty much like Brooklyn taxi drivers. Then Weinbaum created the charming but totally irrational Tweel, and the almost-but-not-quite-comprehensible Oscar, and a host of other truly alien aliens, and science fiction, thank heaven, was never quite the same again.
Probably the greatest single influence for Good was Olaf Stapledon. Most current science fiction writers haven’t read him—but knowingly or (far more often) unknowingly, they’ve swiped from him. Here was a man who didn’t even know science fiction was a distinct literary field, and yet he produced classic after classic of it. There are more ideas per square inch of Star Maker than any SF novel before or since, ideas that have been turning up for generations in the work of our best writers. People praise Gernsbeck for predicting plastic and night baseball. Big deal. Stapledon was the first to deal with galactic and inter-galactic civilizations, with group intelligences, with the various future evolutions of the human race, with cosmic intelligences, with Dyson spheres (yes, Larry Niven got them from Freeman Dyson—but Dyson got them from Stapledon), with the kind of Creator that was never envisioned by religion but might well be inherent in the concept of science. Philip Wylie, in Gladiator, created the first physical superman, giving birth to endless comic book heroes in colorful long underwear—but it was Stapledon, with Odd John, who was the godfather of all the psi powers from van Vogt’s supermen to the protagonist of Silverberg’s Dying Inside, and everyone in between. In Sirius, he gave us our first look at the consequences of artificially-boosted intelligence.
How many classics of science fiction stemmed from Stapledon’s work? 50? 100? Probably more. Now, that’s an influence.
Another major influence has to be Ray Bradbury. He showed us that science fiction needn’t stand apart from Art, that prose that could soar was preferable to prose that merely crawled. He blended myth and fable, created almost single-handedly the serious twigs of the science-fantasy branch, and reached the mainstream readers well ahead of Heinlein, Asimov, and his other contemporaries. In the process, he picked up his share of bad imitators—Art is harder to imitate than most people think—but he clearly had a beneficial influence on Richard Matheson and a score of others.
Everyone knows that Campbell was our most influential editor, dragging the field kicking and screaming into the 20th Century—but I would posit that Anthony Boucher was almost as important for a single reason: he refused to buy a poorly-written story . . . and while Campbell bought his share of them, poor writing didn’t disqualify you from Astounding if your ideas and extrapolation were to his liking. Boucher’s influence has quietly spread across the field to the point where Moorcock, Rusch, and Dozois, while they would differ about what constitutes their ideal science fiction story, had one thing in common: none of them would buy a poorly-written story, no matter how brilliant the content.
I’d mention Heinlein, but I know you’ve got a lot to say about him, so I’ll turn it over to you now.
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BARRY: I have a lot to say about Heinlein but will settle this round for a sentence I wrote about the man in l975: “Heinlein had a perfect understanding of the way the world worked as of l946.” That can never be taken away from him, whatever else has. His five rules for success in fiction may be simplistic but, as stated in l972, they’re pretty good too.
Specific influences? Surely Stapledon had an enormous effect. The problem—if you want to call it a “problem”—is that most of those drawing from him don’t really know this, don’t credit Stapledon at all . . . they’re influenced by people who were influenced by Stapledon; his work has been subsumed in that of his imitators and disciples and the original source gets swept away.
Mark Clifton (l906-l963) had an enormous effect upon science fiction’s approach toward and extrapolation of sociology but he’s almost unknown today. I don’t think that more than 5% of the SFWA membership could give the title of more than two of his short stories, one of his novels. (He did win the second novel Hugo.) That’s because Clifton’s approach was seized upon by a whole group of writers then and later who refined and extended his insights (largely having to do with social referent creating “individual” motive) and, with Clifton’s example before them, were able to do it a lot better.
F.L. Wallace knew almost as many technical tricks in the early 50s as Alfred Bester and demonstrated all of them in his novelettes for Galaxy, but Galaxy was carefully studied by a lot of smart writers and within three or four years they had picked up all of his tricks and learned a few new ones. He’s another forgotten figure now but he was enormously influential on writers such as (just a very few examples) Sheckley and Pohl and Klass and Kornbluth, who obviously studied him assiduously. (And those four writers then went on to influence everybody.)
The single most important influence upon contemporary science fiction was Theodore Sturgeon. This is a point I made twenty years ago in Engines of the Night (when Sturgeon happily was alive and well and saw the reference) and I can only repeat this; Sturgeon in the 40s was style-oriented and sensitive to language in a way that no other science fiction writer was (Kuttner/Moore came close sometimes), and by working in that way and by having the magazine kept open to him by Campbell, Sturgeon encouraged by his very presence almost all of the stylistic innovators of the decades to come, writers like Ballard, Delany, Disch, Moorcock, Ellison, Silverberg, so many who felt that the presence of Sturgeon’s prose and stylistic resonance made science fiction of literary intent possible. Not necessarily lucrative, not the way to the heart of Star Trek, but the way, even to this moment, to the center of what science fiction does best.
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MIKE: Your Sturgeon argument is well-constructed, but I don’t know that it actually holds water. It requires Delany, Zelazny, Disch, and the rest to have come to this field twenty years later, read Sturgeon sandwiched in among all those non-wordsmiths, and said to themselves, “Well, he’s blazed the trail so now I can concentrate on my prose instead of my extrapolations.” Maybe it’s true, but I tend to doubt it.
One man who did blaze a trail was Robert Sheckley. We’d had humor before, of course. Stanton Coblentz thought he was being funny in the 1920s and 1930s, and even Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t beyond a bit of purposeful self-parody—but it was Sheckley who showed that you could do humor on an almost full-time basis, that you could innovate in terms of style and content (as he did in Dimension of Miracles and the “Twisted World” segment of Mindswap) and that more editors than just Horace Gold would buy humor on a regular basis. Yes, we had some funny stories before—especially by Brown, Kuttner and Tenn—but without Sheckley’s example and innovation, I doubt that John Sladek would have written (and published) some of his more esoteric pieces of humor, and perhaps the same can be said for Ray Lafferty’s funnier work.
We can’t go too much farther without talking about William Gibson, for if a literary movement in this field ever had a single prime example, it was cyberpunk. Gibson was so far out ahead of the pack that it’s difficult to see it developing in anything resembling the same way had he not made his contributions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Then there’s Harlan Ellison. Not as a writer—I don’t think anyone writes remotely like him—but as an editor. And not only for the Dangerous Visions books encouraging writers to get off the dime and come up with new concepts and new approaches . . . but because of their success, I think he also had a beneficial effect on editors, who once they saw that the anthologies were well received and were making money and winning awards were much more willing to consider buying innovative ideas and approaches themselves.
Another writer whose influence on the field was beneficial was Philip Jose Farmer. We’d have discovered sex sooner or later even without him, but he certainly hurried the process along. He also found new values in Tarzan, Doc Savage, and that whole crowd, and rewrote them for a far more sophisticated audience than they had first been conceived for.
And now I’m going to name a writer who has absolutely nothing to do with the field, but who, I feel, had a major positive effect. That’s James Clavell, and with Shogun he wrote what is probably the finest first-contact novel ever published. Writer after writer could read that book, see how it was done, borrow the best of his methodology, and import it to science fiction.
But here we are, you and I, naming all the Good Influences, and I see very few names of our superstars. So what about Asimov, Clarke, and so on?
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BARRY: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, the superstars of the so-called Golden Age, enormously influential of course . . . but not stylistically. They cultivated—at least Isaac did, he pointed this out often enough—a deliberately colorless style, one which would interfere the least with the reader’s perception of the story. Asimov’s robots and Foundation, Clarke’s mysticism and strange transcendence (barely hinted in the earlier work but wholly present in Against the Fall of Night and Childhood’s End), certainly had great impact upon any succeeding science fiction writers but not in terms of style . . . there was little distinctive about their work in that regard. One mark of distinctive style, of course, is the susceptibility of the writer to parody and—John Sladek’s noble effort on Asimov stipulated—it’s almost impossible to do so with their work. Same is true of Kuttner and Moore who wrote very cleanly but deliberately lacking distinctiveness. Few have even tried to parody these writers. Whereas Sturgeon and Cordwainer Smith have been the subject of much parody and an enormous amount of derivative work.
“Cordwainer Smith” is worth special mention . . . for the record, most readers of the SFWA Bulletin know this well but in the interest of information, this was the pseudonym adopted by Paul Linebarger (l9l3-l966) for his science fiction. Linebarger, a mysterious and complex figure—diplomat, intelligence agent for the CIA, member of what came to be known in the aftermath of the “People’s Revolution” derisorily in the USA as the “China Lobby”—wrote of his mysterious and exotic far future, a network of civilizations through the galaxies administered by the diabolic and barely-glimpsed Instrumentality. Linebarger’s style, a declamatory, deliberately overblown mythic narrative, has influenced hundreds of science fiction writers and has been outrightly appropriated by a good number. No one, in or out of science fiction, wrote like Linebarger; his work retains its mystery and power decades later, a mystery swathed within the enigma of that style and that never-glimpsed Instrumentality which must be the most barbarous Civil Service ever conceived.
Zenna Henderson (l9l7-l987) is another writer of distinctive style; her narratives of displaced humanoid aliens, living exiled and anonymously on Earth, her so-called “People” were the basis of almost all of her fiction and her distinctive, somewhat sentimental and (like Linebarger) declamatory style have been much appropriated.
Part of the power inherent in the work of these two writers is that the true background, the nature of the history behind the series concept is shadowed, withheld, illuminated only occasionally and tantalizingly. By telling less the stories perhaps tell us more, a trick it should be noted used earlier by A.E. Van Vogt to shroud his cosmic narratives (“this is the race that shall rule the Sevagram”) in portent the greater because of the concealment. Interestingly these three highly influential writers contravene what was supposed to be Campbell’s, Asimov’s or Heinlein’s approaches—keep it simple, keep it all in front of the reader, emphasize clarity beyond all which is just a way of pointing out that if science fiction is a problem there are a number of solutions.
Of course no discussion on influence would be fair if Alfred Bester were not mentioned. Bester knew a few tricks too (and in his case they were inimitable because by the time other writers had figured out one set of tricks Bester had a whole new bag) in the l950s and most of what we have come to call the New Wave or Cyberpunk would not exist without his influence. Bester in his great period was a writer of wider range and more complexity than Linebarger or Henderson, which made him more difficult to imitate but almost every one of us has had a try at one station of the way or another. Take Bester out of science fiction and the void is as great as if it were Campbell who had been subtracted. It is impossible to conceive of the innovative and progressive edge of science fiction through the last fifty years without his influence.
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MIKE: Bester was a brilliant stylist, perhaps the most brilliant the field has ever seen, no question about it. If you come upon his stuff for the first time today, it still reads like he’s five years ahead of the rest of the field. And while the New Wave and cyberpunk would have been very different without him, he was also “responsible” for hundreds of dreadful stories and books by lesser talents who tried to follow where he led and were simply unable to.
Let me go in a different direction. For a sterling example of what you can do when you keep studying your craft and honing your talent, there’s no better example than Jack Williamson, the current unquestioned Dean of Science Fiction. Read The Metal Man and some of his other submissions to Amazing in the 1920s and they’re remarkable mostly for getting into print at all; they’re clumsily written and display almost everything that was wrong with pulp writing.
By the mid-1930s Jack had given us “Born of the Sun” and The Legion of Time, much smoother, more thoughtful stories, though still not of the top rank. In the 1940s we got Darker Than You Think, arguably the best novel ever to run in Unknown, and “The Humanoids”, one of the half-dozen major novella to run in Astounding during the decade.
And still, right through the year 2000, his ninth decade in print as a science fiction writer, Jack’s prose and plotting continue to improve. He and Fred Pohl, his frequent collaborator and the one other writer who seems to improve with each decade, have to be enormous positive influences on any beginners who wonder if they’ll ever get any better. I know of no better exemplars of the benefits of continued hard work over a lifetime’s career.
And for those who feel confined or constricted by their particular sub-field, there’s Fritz Leiber, who will keep people arguing well into the next century about whether he was a better science fiction writer, fantasy writer, or horror writer. A fine example of a man who wrote what he wanted and what the story required, and did it so well there was never any question about selling it.
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BARRY: Bester is still so far ahead of the rest of us that here, in the year 200l, we still haven’t developed the critical or conceptual lexicon which would enable us to truly understand or rigorously criticize his work. That’s why he’s inimitable and why his work, for all of its brilliance, is still marginalized. (I feel this way about the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, a mysterious work which a century ago was written in a musical language we still haven’t been able to translate.) There’s never been a writer so far ahead of the time in which he was working and the true dimensions of his achievement still await proper evaluation . . . and will until and unless that critical language is developed.
Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids—just to try a little rigor of my own—isn’t a novella; ZS published circa l950 it is a novel which conflates “With Folded Hands”, a 25,000 word novella published in the 7/47 Astounding and “And Searching Mind,” a three-part serial which appeared in Astounding in the 3/48 through 5/48 issues. It’s as likely to live as anything published in ASF in the so-called Golden or Silver Age and Damon Knight’s extraordinary review of that novel—to be found in In Search of Wonder—is summary.
Jack Williamson’s humility is the soul of his professionalism; it enabled him to improve over the many, many decades; it is at the heart of his autobiography, Wonder’s Child, which won a Hugo; it is among his most endearing qualities (he has several hundred). Humility in the face of influence is absolutely at the heart of any real accomplishment in writing; even the arrogant—I name no names—must function in that state, as students, as apprentices in order to assume and then build upon the work of writers who have been of influence. The act of writing itself is inherently humble, it is artificial and constricted and in many ways contests the vagaries and truer desires of the human spirit. We must discuss this someday in private but let us give that issue a merciful rest.
Of course “good influences” can become “bad influences”; tin-eared Cordwainer Smith, for instance, of which we’ve all seen too much in and out of print can be dreadful in ways that tin-eared E.E. Smith can never be (lovable old Doc Smith brought his own tin ears to the party). But the risk of converting good to bad is for the next issue, right?
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MIKE: Yes, of course I meant “With Folded Hands,” which is much the more powerful half of the book.
If I were to name one last good influence, it would be Martin Harry Greenberg. As he nears his thousandth anthology (or has he hit it already?), he remains, as he has been for close to two decades, the best single market for beginning and marginal science fiction writers. The magazines take an average of six or seven stores per issue; Marty can take twenty to thirty a book, and he puts out more books than any magazine puts out issues. Sure, he needs a dozen Names for the cover and the sales force . . . but that means he can match every Name with an unknown and still have room left over. It is because of him, and him alone, that SFWA now boasts so many hundreds of writers who had the credentials to join, and I don’t know how you become more of a major influence than that.
Yeah, good influences are easy to pinpoint. Next issue we’ll bite the bullet and try the flip side: bad influences.
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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.