NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 151, Fall, 2001.
MIKE: Well, last issue we discussed Good Influences, which always makes us feel warm and friendly about the field. So I suppose it’s only fair that this issue we tackle what is probably the more important half of the coin: bad influences. I know your cheery good nature rebels against such a topic, but steel yourself.
In fact, I’ll give you a few moments to get in gear by naming the first two.
And, despite the fact that our best-known award is named after him, and despite the fact that he is universally known as The Father of Science Fiction, the foremost culprit on my list of Bad Influences has to be Hugo Gernsback.
Possibly because the list of reasons is almost endless.
First of all, the man had almost no knowledge of the English language. And he had even less interest in it. His notion of “scientifiction” was that it would consist of stories that would interest young boys in science. (Young girls were never mentioned, doubtless being too busy playing with dolls and learning to cook.) And that was the extent of it.
Characterization, believable plots, minimal writing skills, these were totally unimportant to him, possibly because he couldn’t distinguish good from bad. As long as there was some science in the story, that was enough for Hugo.
What did he consider science? Well, the first Amazing Stories Annual, now a high-priced and cherished collector’s item, featured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Master Mind of Mars. The science included brain transplants, flyers that remained aloft because they were powered by the never-described Eighth Barsoomian Ray, and a hero who becomes both a master swordsman and a neurosurgeon on a few weeks’ notice. Now, I grew up on the Burroughs books, and I got into fandom through them—but when the only requisite for your publication is science, you really ought to be a tad more discriminating, n’est-ce pas?
Another problem: Hugo loved accepting stories and but he hated paying for them. Usually he paid only upon threat of lawsuit. I don’t know how many potentially fine writers he drove into fields where publishers kept their words, but given how few fine writers there were in science fiction prior to, say, 1939, scaring away even one was little short of a crime.
And I’d have to say that the creation of Amazing Stories, the first-ever science fiction magazine, was at best a mixed blessing. It created a fiction category (which is to say a marketing category; no one can really assert after Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells that science fiction didn’t exist well before 1900), but by creating it with such low editorial standards (and they weren’t much better anywhere else until John Campbell came along) he created a home for science fiction which wasn’t good enough to compete in the general magazines like Argosy and Redbook and the like.
Suddenly there was a market for inferior science fiction. That market has remained and expanded for three-quarters of a century, and I’d have to say it came about almost solely due to Hugo Gernsback.
Ah, well, this isn’t a diatribe about Hugo. So let’s turn to another Bad Influence, and that’s my childhood hero, the just-mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Nothing wrong with his writing. It is so accessible that he’s still thrilling kids (and some grown-ups) 89 years after first breaking into print, when most of his contemporaries are so stilted and archaic as to be all but unreadable.
Nothing wrong with his science. Well, let’s amend that: there’s lots wrong with his science, but it doesn’t matter, because he wasn’t writing science fiction, not as we know it. He was inventing the sub-field of fantastic adventure, and he didn’t need Hugo Gernsback a tenth as much as Hugo needed him for that one issue in Amazing’s childhood.
But he was the first author in our broad field—let’s call it imaginative fiction and not quibble about names—to write open-ended series. Prior to Burroughs, imaginative novels came one at a time and stood alone. At most they might have one sequel. But Burroughs changed all that, writing and selling 24 Tarzan novels, 10 Mars novels, 4 Venus novels, and 7 Pellucidar novels. They of course found a ready audience, and they also of course declined in quality in almost a straight-line graph.
But because he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was commercially viable, people are still writing 8-volume trilogies and endless sequels and open-ended series, to the detriment of the overall quality in the field. Thanks a heap, Edgar old pal.
Gee, I feel better already. Your turn.
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BARRY: Big question. I pointed out in a cautionary way last column that “good” influences can be the worst influences of all . . . the crappy, derivative, tin-eared Bester and Cordwainer Smith, the Sturgeon-manque, the tortured Ellison imitations to which we’ve all been exposed in and (more likely) out of print over the past 40 years. The best writers—the most powerful, idiosyncratic, individual, distinctive—can be in terms of influence the worst; they’re not only inimitable but the attempt to imitate can lead newer writers well off the path, delay or perhaps make impossible the development of their own voice.
That cavil made, that point taken, I’ll try to stay on-topic here and begin by noting that A.E. Van Vogt has probably been among the most pernicious of influences; what Van Vogt did in his prime was remarkable but it also made little objective sense (the man wrote dreams rather than transmuted narrative) and a careful appraisal of Van Vogt’s work led directly, with so many writers, to the kind of three-part mistake which Damon Knight so brilliantly limned in one of his essays in IN SEARCH OF WONDER:
1) Nobody understands science anyway so you can just make up this stuff as you go along.
2) Only kids really read science fiction so what the hell.
3) Anytime you get into plot or credibility trouble, just give them the old malarkey.
I used those principles—crediting Damon first and often— in an FSF review of some novels thirty years ago (my first review; there are some who would say it should have been my last) . . . those novels failed because they relied upon those tenets and writers who rely upon them to this day—there are so many of them— will fail for the same reason. Van Vogt’s malarkey was extraordinary; he was able to find the kid in all of us and the non-science he made up page by page may have been utter nonsense (“this is the race which will rule the Sevagram”) but had that kind of compelling, hypnoagogic quality of induced awe characteristic of dreams. He could and did get away with this, at least he did so for a long time; he got away with it for (in his words) “those ten good years which really constitute a writer’s career”) But his imitators, and they were many, didn’t get away with it nearly as well and because Van Vogt wrote what was— objectively speaking—nonsense, he reinforced through his work and that of his disciples the opinion of marginal readers of SF or those hostile to it: that the entire category was nonsense. An important writer, the most influential writer of the l940’s and I would never begrudge him his Grandmaster . . . but overall, in terms of persistent influence, he may have done more harm than good.
Do I feel better now? I’ll have to lie down and call you in the morning.
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MIKE: I certainly agree about van Vogt, but for a different reason. More than once he codified his writing methodology, which was to bring in a new idea every 800 words. He also seemed to like to have his alarm ring in the middle of the night, and write down the first thing that came into his head. I wonder how many embryonic careers were destroyed by trying to emulate that approach?
As a matter of fact, let me suggest that another bad influence was Isaac Asimov. Not for his writing, of course, nor for his championing science and science fiction at every opportunity, and certainly not for being our most popular and persuasive ambassador to the mundane world.
But Isaac, time and again, argued that bare-bones prose that made the author invisible was the proper and best way to write. Now, how a man who annotated Shakespeare could hold such an opinion is beyond me, but there it is, stated and restated many times in black and white. Sure, not every story has to be a prose poem, but what would our field be without Bradbury and Delany and Vance and Silverberg and others whose prose soars rather than crawls? Let’s hope Isaac didn’t discourage too many artists from trying to write at the peak of their literary ambition.
Heinlein didn’t help with those five rules of his. One was that you never rewrite except to editorial request/demand. That may have been essential when markets were paying a quarter of a cent a word, but for someone who is trying to hone his craft and improve his art, of course you’re going to rewrite.
But ah, I hear you say, Heinlein meant that you don’t rewrite after the story is done and mailed out. Well, leaving aside the question of whether a story—or any piece of art—is ever truly done, I think there comes a time when you must consider rewriting a story or scrapping it entirely. Sure, one or two rejections might simply mean that you’re sending the story to the wrong editor—but when you collect 15 or 20 rejections, I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that the editors are trying to tell you something.
Then, of course, we’ve got Gene Roddenberry. Yes, he brought twenty million viewers to science fiction . . . but let’s be totally honest: it was state of the art science fiction circa 1943, or perhaps even earlier. I don’t mind that his ship could execute a left turn at light speeds in seconds without pulling apart. I don’t mind that his top two or three officers often left the ship while in hostile territory. I don’t even mind the fact that everyone in the galaxy speaks English. I do mind the fact that an entire generation of fans and potential writers grew to maturity wanting only to write about pointy ears and the like, that they’d rather tell second-hand stories in a third-hand universe than write their own stories in their own universe. I don’t know why this should be, in a field that gives you more freedom and more scope than any other. I just know that there weren’t tens of thousands of young men and women trying to write Lensman or Foundation or Dune stories—but I shudder to think how many have had an attitude of “Either I write Trek stories, which is the only noble and honorable task for a science fiction writer, or I don’t write at all.” Probably no great loss, but still . . .
Lucas? He kept a tighter hold on the literary end of his empire, so I have no serious problem with him there. But here’s a guy who has convinced literally hundreds of millions of people worldwide that it makes sense, in an age with computerized ray guns (or blasters, or whatever the hell they are) to fight with swords. Zillions for effects, but nothing for the scientific advisor who might have told him that you don’t make “the so-and-so run in twelve parsecs,” any more than when bragging about Secretariat you say that he was so fast he won the Kentucky Derby in a mile and a quarter.
So what? Who really cares? It was all good fun, right?
Yeah, even the members of the so-called New York Literary Establishment saw those films, and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what they concluded about science fiction. That’s why we still don’t get reviewed in the front half of any prestige publication. Or, as Sturgeon pointed out so many years ago, never has a field been judged so often by its worst examples.
Sonuvagun! We’re almost halfway through and we haven’t even mentioned the Shaver Mystery.
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BARRY: Let’s be fair to Isaac Asimov; that “styleless style” he advocated, that utmost clarity was not necessarily his first law of literary technique. It was personal rather than general. Asimov perhaps sensing his deficiencies as a stylist, perhaps having evolved a theory of his science fiction which was idea-centered, concentrated upon clarity, left the style to Kuttner and Bester and Sturgeon and Shakespeare. He never claimed that his was the only way or the optimum way to write science fiction, simply that it was for him the best way. He would have noted, did note and not with entire modesty, that he seemed to have done better at it than almost all of his contemporaries and competitors and that has to be acknowledged.
Ah, the Shaver Mystery. Richard S. Shaver, mailman from the Midwest, I think, pelted Raymond Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories in the mid-l940’s with a series of essays he insisted were “true,” detailing human history and its outcome; deteriorated robots (“deros”), dwelling at the center of the Earth, left by malevolent aliens, controlling human destiny. Palmer published one of these, claimed an enormous, credulous response, published another, published more and more over a period of several years. The “serious” science fiction community reacted with rage and disgust; what came to be called “Shaverism” was the most obvious nonsense and Palmer was pandering to the most gullible and debased parts of the audience. Another body of opinion held that “Shaver” didn’t exist at all, was a figment of Palmer’s ever so lively circulation-building information and that Palmer was writing all of this stuff himself. Palmer said no, insisted that Shaver was “real,” that he, Palmer, was only giving the manuscripts a little bit of a touch-up and grooming. Apparently this was the truth because “Shaver” or someone representing to be him turned up in Richard E. Geis’s Science Fiction Review in the l970’s blaming “pseudo-intellectual fandom” for the bad name he had been given and insisting that it was all true, all true. (The letters could have been written by the then long-retired Palmer under “Shaver’s” name, but Geis tended not to think so and Shaver appeared to have a real address, a real listing in an area far from Palmer’s Wisconsin.)
The Shaver Mystery did science fiction incalculable damage. No question about it . . . that series of essays (they were published as “fiction” but with a broad wink to the audience, Palmer in editorial commentary implied that the material was so controversial, so dangerous that it could only be safely published in that way) brought Time Magazine and other parts of the general media to science fiction in ways that John Campbell’s Astounding and even the atomic bomb (predicted and limned in so many mid-forties stories) never had. Campbell and Astounding were “serious,” attempting successfully to evaluate our dear, dying form; Time Magazine wasn’t interested in seriousness for a whole series of reasons which we can approach another time. To the sweltering millions of Time readers, science fiction was Shaverism, was deteriorated robots, was Palmer craziness and fraudulence under garish covers brought out month by month. Did the field no good at all . . . it could be argued that the after-effects of Shaverism have persisted for decades.
But Shaverism, whatever and by whoever, was only one of Palmer’s inventions. Brought in by Ziff-Davis in the early l940s as a wild-eyed fan who Ziff-Davis thought (after the death of T. O’Connor Sloane at something like the age of 167) could find a formula which would appeal to all the other wild-eyed fans who Palmer in voluminous correspondence to Amazing had claimed to represent, Palmer published a magazine filled with—there is no other way to put this—dreadful fiction by dreadful writers (with a few good writers encouraged to write dreadful fiction; good writers can certainly do this).
The magazine had no credibility with the serious readers of Astounding or the Futurians or even the Fans-Are-Slans movement—but it had credibility or at least amusement value with others because Amazing under Palmer had remarkable sales figures, by far the highest sales figures ever generated by a science fiction magazine. In an era where Astounding was selling 50,000 copies an issue, the mid-to-late-forties Amazing was selling 200,000. These figures were never equaled. They were extraordinary.
The great commercial success of Amazing assured that science fiction at the time and as it developed at the high end to a literature of visionary quality in the l950s would indeed be judged, as Sturgeon put it, by its worst examples; for the general public as codified and pandered to by Time Magazine, science fiction was perceived as garbage. If science fiction were somehow to clamber out of the genre magazines—Heinlein’s stories in The Saturday Evening Post, Bradbury’s in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Collier’s—well, then, it would not, as Kingsley Amis’s old quatrain put it, be science fiction. If it were good and could not be ignored then it would be perceived by Time as “transcending the genre.” Happened and is still happening in the mystery too, of course—Chandler, Ross MacDonald—but it has been particularly pernicious in science fiction.
Palmer became marginalized in the l950s, starting Other Worlds sub rosa while still employed by Ziff-Davis, being caught out on this and being fired. Other Worlds, Universe, and other Palmer publications never did well without the Ziff-Davis edge in the marketplace and eventually, by the end of the decade, Palmer had left editing in the field (he continued editing that strange magazine, Fate, I believe, to some point in the l960s) but the damage had very much been done. We’re still struggling out from under his fecund spirit.
Palmer did plenty of damage, all right; I think that Star Trek and Star Wars did even more. You’ve already discussed this pretty well and the way in which media seem to have overtaken “serious” science fiction in terms of the larger public, and I have little enough to add. It is true that Star Trek at the beginning and Star Wars a little later brought over to written science fiction a huge, new group of readers, some of whom stayed around to read and appreciate Sturgeon, Bester, Ellison, Silverberg and even Ballard, and a few of whom even went on to become notable writers themselves. The pool of science fiction readers and writers was certainly notably increased, at least at the outset, by the media material. But the not-so-long-range effect of Star Trek and Star Wars upon science fiction was pernicious, I am sure we can agree. And the effect of Tolkien and his exploiters and imitators—who led to a circumstance in which fantasy overtook science fiction in publication, sales figures and readership (and at times seemed to marginalize science fiction itself), make it a special interest in a fantasy market place—was more pernicious than that.
Tolkien’s work was valuable, Shaver’s material was not. I wouldn’t want to compare them in any way. But both for their individual reasons, had a devastating effect upon science fiction as Gold and Campbell and Knight and Sturgeon and Kornbluth and the other Futurians loved and built it.
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MIKE: A quick word of clarification about Isaac. I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t have written in that “styleless style”. It worked beautifully for him. I was one of his biggest fans, at least to about 1980 or so. But when you’re the most recognizable member of the field, a personage akin to an elder god, literally a national treasure, I don’t think suggesting to impressionable newcomers that this is the best way to write science fiction did them any beneficial service.
Well, that’s a minor cavil, one I wouldn’t even have mentioned if we were filling up less column inches. But I’ve got a real gripe with the next name on my list, and unlike all the others, he doesn’t write science fiction, he doesn’t edit science fiction, he doesn’t review or criticize science fiction, and he doesn’t publish science fiction.
But he sure makes a lot of money off science fiction.
His name—surely you saw this coming—is William Shatner, and I want to state right at the start that I have no problem with his acting, or his directing, or his singing offkey in all those hokey television ads for Priceline.com.
But prior to Shatner, when a book was ghost-written for a celebrity, it was always an “as-told-to” biography. Only with Shatner did we get the ghost-written novel—and thanks to him, it seems like every actor who ever worked on Star Trek has suddenly become a “novelist.” It’s wiped out the midlist, perpetrated one fraud after another on a field that has been striving all its life for legitimacy, and kept a lot of good writers ghosting in obscurity.
Yeah, you and I know that Ron Goulart ghosted the Tekwar books—but ask any of the hundred thousand worshipful Shatner fans who shelled out $25 or so for the hardcover who wrote it and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. Explain that Goulart did it and they’ll call you a liar. Even when the true author’s name appears on the cover of one of these “celebrity-authored” books—Steve Stirling, Dean Wesley Smith, whoever—the reader will tell you that, well, maybe these writers fixed a bit of science on page 183 or 292, but of course Kirk or Scotty or Riker wrote the book. If not, why is their name on top, and in the biggest letters?
So is it that terrible?
Yes, it is. It’s dishonest, it robs writers of the credit they deserve, it encourages publishers to buy more dishonest books which in turn keeps more non-ghost-writers from earning the money that goes to those slots on the list, and it encourages the false belief among readers that these books are state-of-the-art science fiction—which in turn makes it harder for writers who are creating state-of-the-art science fiction to place it for a living wage.
Your turn—in fact, your last turn for this dialogue—and do you notice how I thoughtfully haven’t mentioned L. Ron Hubbard?
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BARRY: I’m much too smart and highly educated to say anything about L. Ron Hubbard other than To the Stars (ASF, February and March l950) was a surprisingly forward-looking and visionary novel of space travel and the time dilation effect which has been imitated by many, many famous writers and famous works and has never gotten its due. And Final Blackout, which is regarded as “dated” now, isn’t so much dated as it is that example of a science fiction story which became so horrifyingly verified in “reality” that it lost any sense of being science fiction and slid to the borders, if not clear out, of the canon.
And don’t think that Isaac presumed to tell newcomers how to write or that he advocated his “styleless style” as the proper way to write science fiction. Said it was the proper way for him but didn’t go beyond that. Isaac was no pedagogue or ideologue (well, he was an ideologue but not in any area having to do with fiction writing) and it’s not accurate, in my opinion, to suggest that he turned his own approach into advocacy. If he did, I’ve never heard or seen it. Can you find any published source for your attribution?
Shatner has had plenty of problems lately of a non-literary sort, and it is perhaps decent to take a pass on the poor guy’s “collaborations.” Of course you are right and of course the contemptuous willingness of Shatner and so many others in the Star Trek crew to lease out their names for half the money and no further responsibility is kind of contemptible . . . but there’s a healthy extra-science tradition for that kind of thing: how many of those actor’s or celebrity “novels” or “autobiographies” are truly written by the subject? That Hillary Clinton’s first move after agreeing to the eight million dollar advance for her “tell-all” autobiography was to have her staff make public her search for a writer is evidence of how deeply sunk into the culture that is; one not only doesn’t conceal the presence of a ghost; one sends out an open call. The actual writer of Ivana Trump’s first “novel” was credited openly on the dedication page. Shatner brought this kind of thing into science fiction at a higher level of advance and prominence than had previously been the case but new? A particularly baleful turn of events? I don’t think so.
It’s not Shatner who is as much of a problem as writers, brand name, established writers who have leased out their names, have had their names on books with which they’ve had relatively little or nothing to do. I am too smart to give names in this (or any other forum) but I can think of many examples in which a famous writer’s sole byline has adorned work with which the writer had no participation other than financial. I am too smart to add other names but one can be pretty sure that in the case of any dual bylined novel by Famous Writer X and Not At All Famous Writer Y, Y has written most if not all of the book. Some Famous Writers have their “integrity,” they’ll do the outline or at least participate significantly in the preparation of the outline and they will insist upon the right to read and approve drafts of the work in progress and other Famous Writers have little participatory interest other than the financial, but no matter how relatively scrupulous, all of these arrangements are unscrupulous, they are exploitative. They debase the reputation and the body of work of the Famous Writers, they render the Not So Famous Writers hacks in the sole service of commerce and they do dear old science fiction no good at all. This loathsome practice—even more loathsome to me than good old dishonest “sharecropping” in which Not So Famous Writer Y toils “In the World Of” or “In The Tradition of” Famous Writer X, which at least is upfront about the nonparticipatory element—has done and will continue to do incalculable damage.
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MIKE: You ask, “Can you find any published source for your attribution?”
Sure. Easy. Try Chapter 10 (“The Mosaic and the Plate Glass”) in Asimov on Science Fiction, and I quote:
Well, then suppose we had two stories: a mosaic and a plate glass. They are not directly comparable, to be sure, but suppose that they (each in its own way) are equally good. In that case, which should one choose? If it were I making the choice, I would plump for the plate glass every time. It’s what I like to write and it’s what I like to read.
That chapter appeared in a section of the book titled The Writing of Science Fiction.
There are more examples, but why bother? He did a lot of great things, and advocated one not-so-great thing. Let’s get on to the real villains.
And since this is the final piece of this dialogue, we couldn’t end it without referring to a writer who was as zany and innovative as Bester, who reached even more mainstream readers than Bradbury, and who under other circumstances would have been a Worldcon Guest of Honor and a Nebula Grandmaster well over a decade ago.
Right. Kurt Vonnegut.
Ah, the good he could have done us all! Here’s a guy who got his start in Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who burst upon the scene with novels like The Sirens of Titan and Player Piano—and had the gall, the absolute chutzpah, to publicly deny at every opportunity that he was writing science fiction. Even after Slaughterhouse-Five and the planet of Tralfamadore, he kept insisting that he didn’t write science fiction, and the New York Literary Establishment and his few millions of readers actually bought it. Here’s a man who could have been the best, or one of the best, of us, adding to the ancient notion that if it’s good, it can’t possibly be “Sci-Fi.”
I dunno. We’re just a literary field, but I rank his denial right up there with “This is not an invasion of Cambodia” and “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman.” It takes a certain kind of temperament to look the press in the eye and utter such a whopper.
Well, he concluded with a shrug, maybe that’s what made Vonnegut such a good science fiction writer.
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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.