SFNF: Bretnor, Modern Science Fiction

Reginald Bretnor’s 1953 Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Future is one of the earliest critical volumes about SF. If follows Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s 1947 OF WORLDS BEYOND (summarized here) and precedes the anonymously-edited 1959 volume THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (here), but is substantially longer than either of those.

The book consists of 11 essays written (with one partial-exception) especially for it, and the contributors range from Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, to relative unknowns like Don Fabun and Rosalie Moore.

The first section of three essays is about “Science Fiction Today”.

John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “The Place of Science Fiction” is a quick survey of human history that identifies SF as a response to the current state, since 1910 or so, of permanent ongoing change. He notes that interest in SF increased significantly following the atomic bomb in 1945 (i.e., as one of early science fiction’s wild-eyed ‘predictions’ that actually came true). SF, Campbell says, is a kind of practice zone, a place to try out new ideas before implementing them in a world where they might be too dangerous. And he makes a case that, while the circulation of SF magazines is tiny as a part of the overall population, his own Astounding is reaching “about one third of the men in the most creative age levels who are interested in technical developments.”

Also worth noting is that Bretnor in his introduction, Campbell in this piece, and Boucher in the following, all claim that SF “as a self-aware system of literature” in Campbell’s words, is just a quarter century old.

The Publishing of Science Fiction” is by Anthony Boucher, co-founder and at the time still co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as being a mystery reviewer and author of seven novels. (And like Bretnor, and Fabun, and Moore, lived at the time in Berkeley or nearby the Bay Area, according to Bretnor’s bio notes.) Boucher sketches out how the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ fiction was a recent one, using mystery novels as a first example. Such genre books had a guaranteed minimum audience, so publishers learned they couldn’t lose money on such books; yet neither could they make big money. (Aside: Boucher refers a couple times to ‘rental’ libraries that many readers would use rather than buy books outright, which in that day cost typically $2.50 for a hardcover. This is a concept outside of my personal experience.)

Boucher goes on: The history of SF began with Hugo Gernsback and his magazines. Amazing, 1926; Astounding, 1930; Campbell taking over Astounding, 1937, with the field expanding to some 30 magazine titles (!) at the time of writing. Book publishing became feasible as interest in SF was triggered by the atomic bomb. The first anthologies were the two big ones in 1946 [Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas, eds. • Adventures in Time and Space and Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fictin]. SF books are different than mysteries in that far more of them are anthologies, and SF readers keep buying hardcovers for years, even after paperback editions are available. (Whereas, apparently, mysteries were more like commodities, one book ceasing to sell as soon as the next came along.) And are willing to spend money to buy books from specialty houses like Arkham House, et al.

Still in recent years, most SF books are reprinted from magazine serials: in 1949, 15 sf novels published from magazines, 5 without previous publication; in 1950, 29 and 13; in ’51, 17 and 14; etc.

Writerly pay? In this era, typical rates were $100 for a short story, $1200 for a novel, for an annual salary [for a full-time writer] of perhaps $3600. (Note reference to the “newly organized Science Fiction Writers of America” – p40, in 1953! Obviously this never came about; the SFWA we know was formed by Damon Knight in 1964 or so…)


Science Fiction in Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television” is by Don Fabun, at the time a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He explains the disappointing examples of SF in the mass media as being an effect of how the mass media needs to reduce complex prose to simple pictures. SF is built on the myth that “the mind of man is capable of solving all problems directed to it by the exercise of rational thinking and through the logical disciplines of orthodox science.” P47.0. But mass audiences need emotional appeal, or character symbols — the heroine, the villain, and so on. So when SF was adapted for mass entertainment the obvious model was the western; thus, ‘space opera’ like current TV shows of the time. These shows aren’t just for juveniles — p49m “Any theatre manager who stands in the lobby of his theater and listens to the remarks of this departing patrons will agree that, no matter how juvenile his fare for the evening, many of the people going out apparently have failed to understand it.”

Fabun goes on to examine SF films. The first successful SF film was Rocket Ship X-M in 1951. Soon after that, George Pal’s Destination Moon, successful, very accurate, but rather documentary-like. The Thing was next, also very successful – but a prime example of good prose story made “a complete and inexcusable mess” p53m. Also in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which writer here calls “a wan mish-mash of several science-fiction themes, carried out in a weary manner which made one think that the producers must have had a captive audience in mind.”

He then moves on to TV, with very detailed descriptions of the popular shows, and their radio antecedents — Buck Rogers in 1932, superseded by Superman, then Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

On TV, Captain Video came on in June 1949, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet in October 1950; then Space Patrol. Writer describes their doubletalk gadgets and weapons (cosmic ray vibrator; atomic rifle; thermoid ejector; nucleamatic pistol, etc., p63b) and how they all had prohibitions against bloodshed, violence, and death. These were serials, shown up to five days a week in 15 minute or half hour segments, both live and filmed.

Tales of Tomorrow was an anthology show adapting short stories, e.g. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.” The problem was with needing writers – the assumption here is that writers for TV had to establish a track record in print first, then be able to write dramatically; still, most TV productions are written by TV writers, who often adapt stories from print. Example from a 1952 magazine article, of outlining a story, getting technical advice from Willy Ley, turning out a script in a week, and to the director just one week before telecast.

(I won’t bother to comment on how these assumptions have changed radically, again and again, over the decades since.)

In time, Fabun predicts, most SF might be written primarily for TV or motion picture screens (rather than adapted from published stories).


The next section, “SF as Literature“, begins with Fletcher Pratt’s “A Critique of Science Fiction.” His issues are familiar even today as criticisms of bad science fiction; many of these still apply, only a few have been overcome by SF’s merging with popular culture. I’ll bullet-point them.

  • SF has too many unscientific elements, e.g. the fiction of A.E. van Vogt. Writers owe us at least plausible explanations for how something should work; else we have pseudo-science, the “label we all hate so much” p75.7. (But see my point on this issue, about a similar comment by Heinlein, here)
  • It’s bad when authors produce new gadgets at the end of a story to solve all the problems. [Some episodes of various Trek incarnations, anyone?]
  • Characters who all sound the same; no details of everyday life. George O. smith, EE Smith.
  • Stories with a brilliant concept but no story– “The Absolute at Large”; “E for Effort”; “The Xi Effect”.
  • Gigantism, in which the stakes grow to whole galaxies at war, and so on; Foundation; de Camp’s Johnny Black, often in response to editorial urging of more and more sequels. [ Of course this is a common feature of modern SF superhero and space opera series. ]
  • Writers who imagine English spoken by aliens, or the same English in the far future. [ too many examples…]
  • Using terms of disintegrator and space-warp, perhaps only understood by cultists. [ not any more! ]
  • Mystification via mumbo-jumbo. Van Vogt.
  • The cult of the superman story. Stories in which we wonder why characters who have some unusual ability that makes us wonder why they don’t use it to take over. Sixth Column.
  • The overuse of surprise ending, especially currently in Galaxy magazine.
  • And how SF dates, both in the language of the writing of the time, and in obsolete predictions. When the Sleeper Wakes.


I’ll not summarize all of the following essays in quite such detail.

Rosalie Moore’s “Science Fiction and the Main Stream” says a lot of obvious things about how we read a fantastic story differently from a realistic or mainstream story, a theme developed greatly in decades since, notably by Samuel R. Delany. She does make some familiar points about the difference between a mainstream story and an SF one. 115.4: How “all too often the effect of the mainstream story—over and over—was one of dejections and defeat.” Mainstream stories conclude, “Isn’t it terribly sad?” while sf asks, “Precisely what are we going to do next?” And how “the typical New Yorker” story, p116b, is about frustration and taking no action. As if the idea of plot is vulgar. 117.4

L. Sprague de Camp’s “Imaginative Fiction and Creative Imagination” is about how de Camp writes stories. Creative imagination is about free association. A handicap for any writer is simply not knowing enough. A writer’s sources are his experiences, personal or vicarious. Killdozer. These can include legends and myths, the author’s contemporaries, paying attention to the progress of science. A writer is trying to do three things: entertain the reader; express himself and his feelings; and convey some idea or opinion. He goes on to explore why SF depends on the glamor of the exotic, to explain why stories about the future should exploit “such archaisms as pre-gunpowder weapons, hereditary monarchy, and all-powerful hierarchical religious cults”. Not all progress is uniform. And most cultures have a “myth of a heroic age, when mankind was young and all men were virile, all women beautiful, and all problems simple.” 135.4, followed by “the modern Western belief that ancient times were mostly hard, cruel, dreary, and unsanitary, while probably closer to the facts that the heroic-age concept, is a relatively new one.”


The final section, “Science Fiction, Science, and Modern Man“, begins with the longest essay in the book, by Isaac Asimov, about “Social Science Fiction.” This strikes me as an essential, classic essay, but perhaps I think that only because I read this essay in Damon Knight’s volume TURNING POINTS back in 1977, and it struck me at the time, especially because I didn’t think I agreed with it. In this essay Asimov makes a distinction between proper science fiction and mere ‘social’ science fiction — like Gulliver’s Travels, or More’s Utopia.

I think at the time I thought Asimov was being persnickety, trying to distance himself, and his own brand of proper science fiction, from the claimed antecedents who didn’t really do it the way he thought it should be done.

(As an aside, I had a well-read friend once, not an SF fan, who was flabbergasted that anyone would try to claim NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR as science fiction. I think his literary intuitions aligned with what Asimov was trying to get to in this essay.)

Asimov claims it’s a question of intent. He describes literature’s response to increased change over recent centuries in phases: social fiction, then gothic horror fiction, then science fiction. And he declares his new definition of science fiction, p167.4: “Science fiction is that branch of literature which deals with a fictitious society, differing from our own chiefly in the nature or extent of its technological development.”

Asimov goes on to describe four eras in the history of science fiction: 1815-1926; 1926-1938; 1948-1945; 1945-present. The earliest was ‘primitive’; the second defined by Gernsback founding Amazing Stories; the third by Campbell taking over Astounding; the final by the atomic bomb.

He then goes on to distinguish between ‘chess game stories’ and ‘chess puzzle stories.’ The rules by which pieces move are the impulses of humanity [human nature] – p178m. The chess game story has a fixed starting position, our own socio-economic society: the city, an agricultural economy, etc. p179.3.

The purest chess-game story takes advantage of the idea that “history repeats itself.” Asimov has used this idea repeatedly – in his Foundation stories, in other novels, 180t. [Asimov knows his history! More than most casual readers, I’d guess.]

Noting that author and critic Damon Knight has taken issue with this idea [in a review reprinted in Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER], Asimov counters with a detailed outline of an historical episode, with blanks for key names, p181-183, and then provides a table of three columns, each a set of names to fill in the blanks: 17th century England; 18th century France; 20th century Russia. There are a few mismatches, but the number of matches is impressive.

Then he provides some examples of ‘chess puzzle’ stories by Leiber, Wyman Guin, Tenn, Russell, de Camp.

Finally he considers the effect of SF on society, and dismisses the idea that SF is only escape literature. The future has to be thought about, and SF can accustom the reader to the idea of change. He cites FDR’s willingness to experiment; that’s what SF does. And the effect of SF is to expand the scope, to break down hostility between tribes and states, to consider anything less that “Earthman” doesn’t make sense.

Summary 195-6:
“1. For the first time in history mankind is faced with a rapidly changing society, due to the advent of modern technology.
2. Science fiction is a form of literature that has grown out of this fact.
3. The contribution science fiction can make to society is that of accustoming its readers to the thought of the inevitability of continuing change and the necessity of directing and shaping that change rather than opposing it blindly or blindly permitting it to overwhelm us.”

….So after all these years I’m more sympathetic to his distinction between “social science fiction” and other forms of SF than I was when I read this essay 40 years ago. Though not quite on basis Asimov makes it, but from another perspective, analogous to my distinction between SF and fantasy, where the former is about recognition of an objectively knowable universe, distinct from human values, and the latter is a literature in which human values, and wishes and dreams, are projected into various imaginary settings. What Asimov calls social SF is, in a sense, an extrapolation of human nature, rather than a consideration of how human nature reacts to discoveries of science or changes in technology. So that might indeed dismiss Plato et al from SF; but not Orwell, and surely not Huxley, whose imagined dystopias do indeed depict social changes in reaction to technological changes.


In contrast, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Science Fiction: Preparation for the Age of Space” is a rather dry survey of the various ways writers over the centuries have imagined voyages into space. Clarke doesn’t mention the book, but he might well have read J.O. Bailey’s PILGRIMS THROUGH SPACE AND TIME, a 1947 survey of the many precursors of utopian thinking before modern SF, all the names that most of the writers here dismiss as not belonging to the modern genre. (I have a copy of this book too, but am not motivated to read it.) Thus, Clarke describes voyages into space via the supernatural (Kepler, Stapledon, Lewis); by natural agencies (Lucian of Samons, Bishop Godwin; de Berjerac); via ‘subtle engines’ such as wings, firecrackers, or magnets; space guns in McDermont, of course Verne, and the 1936 Wells film; antigravity; rockets; miscellaneous; and space stations.


Philip Wylie’s “Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis” is fascinating in its revelations of what worried people in the 1950s. Democracy requires an educated citizenry, but we live in an increasingly complex society in which it’s impossible to keep up, in which everyday people are necessarily specialists, and Congress is ignorant about the atom. In fact Congress took the action to assign such knowledge (of the atomic bomb) to the military, making it ‘secret’ — a subversion of democracy, Wylie claims. That’s what he’s worried about — an unprecedented development, he seems to think, about an issue (secrecy) that we take for granted today.

So is SF educational, he wonders? Does it help people to reason, or merely muddle their thinking? Does SF have any obligation to the standards of science?

His answer: it can help, but it seldom does. SF isn’t mythology; it’s religious in form, but must be honest toward outer objects. On page 232 he says this: “This is, essentially, a mere transposition of the subjective teaching of Jesus to the outer world. Many authors have said, rightly, in the opinion of this one, that true science was impossible before the teachings and ideals of Jesus had been disseminated.” I have no idea what he means; it doesn’t correspond to anything I understand from reading the NT or about the history of science.

He goes on to worry primarily that SF doesn’t take into account what is known about “man’s nature” — that is psychology. “Without a science of such matters, what they write is irresponsible, in the sense that it pretends to be ‘modern’ whereas it is contemporary in detail only—and inevitably, in meaning, archaic.” The result is that SF has made audiences credulous about matters like flying saucers. The amorality of SF/F is a symptom of a general mental disorder. He mentions Freud, Adler, and Jung, about the importance of myth, and implies this understanding is what is lacking in SF.

This piece suffers because Wylie alludes to good and bad examples of SF, without naming any of them. Presumably he assumed his readers know what’s talking about; but 60 years on we can only guess.

What I find extraordinary about the essay, though, is that he was on to something — psychology was indeed primitive 60 years ago, but it has advanced greatly since — cf. Kahneman, Haidt, Pinker, McRaney — and in fact understanding of this psychology can deeply inform our understanding of human interactions, of politics, of science fiction and fantasy. If mainstream fiction has done better at portraying human nature, it’s done so intuitively, unconsciously. Whereas scientific understanding of psychological issues — mental biases and the persistence of logical fallacies in everyday life — has in fact begun to filter down into the fiction of SF authors. The first example that comes to mind is KSR’s AURORA…


The next essay is “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion,” by Gerald Heard (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/heard_gerald), an author and journalist mostly forgotten by now, I think. For me this was the most intriguing essay in the book, for its topic; what were the issues about morals and religion in the 1950s that science fiction had anything to do with? Heard quickly identifies several issues: artificial insemination; the understanding that hormones affect human personality; the general issue of what is ‘natural’ and whether science can enforce the “simplicities which uninformed moralists thought was all that was natural.” More broadly, how will atom bombs affect how power is fought? And what will future societies be like, as individuals become increasingly specialized?

SF can address not just the “pursuit of truth” but the idea of “future alternate universes” and identify what the potentials for humanity might be. SF can build up a ‘tolerance’ to new ideas (unlike, he claims, science, with its failure to take reports of ESP or flying saucers seriously -!! p260).

Heard’s style is roundabout and pompous, as if he assumes the reader knows and agrees with his conclusions so that he need barely mention them, let alone spell them out. He finally gets around to discussing religion in the middle of a long paragraph on p261 and, typically, claims no conflict between science and religion: science is empiric research, religion is the frame of meaning, and how those meanings are applied is morality. This makes religion alive in a way it was not when all it did was defend the past and its “outgrown cosmogonies, inaccurate history and inapposite codes.” And he goes on about Julian Huxley and how the pessimism of evolution and materialism has been overcome. (It has?) And so a task of SF is to “construct an ethic deduced from a modern cosmology and producing rules of demonstrable psychiatric, hygienic and social value.” OK. But he loses me when he claims that meaning is not just anthropomorphic or mechanomorphic. …rather “an extension of conscious thought which indicates and will tend to explicate a vast directive, a concept that is more inspiring to the modern mind than any forecast of a concrete goal.” (p264.)


Finally, editor Bretnor’s “The Future of Science Fiction” spends time defining SF, and then defending it from ‘mainstream’ detractors.

Like a couple others he’s concerned with the problem of modern-day specialization, and claims the misunderstanding of science, and the scientific method, is a driver for the emergence of SF. p272: “Today, science fiction appears as a genre because the main currents of our literature still adhere to sets of principles which are pre-scientific – principles whose validity can only be maintained by rigidly excluding the knowledge which would prove them false.”

His definition of SF again stresses awareness of the scientific method. He identifies three categories, in descending order:

1, works which reveal the author’s awareness of the scientific method not just in circumstance and plot but in the thoughts of its characters;
2, works with such an awareness, but only in circumstance and plot;
3, works that reveal the author is aware only of the products of the scientific method.

While ‘serious’ fiction emphasizes feeling rather than thought. And with this he challenges critics in the popular press who disparage SF on one ground or another. One of his examples is the paragraph from Saturday Review that Heinlein further attacked in his essay in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL. Another is a mischaracterization by Look magazine of Donald Menzel dismissing a particular UFO incident — Look implied the entire field of UFO studies was thereby discredited. Bretnor then makes this extraordinary statement:

This statement is in the same general category as—to use the most familiar of absurd examples—those which flatly deny the existence of a God or gods, the possibility of survival after death, the actuality of ESP phenomena, the prevalence of witches, or life on other worlds, or poltergeists, or the meteorological effectiveness of the Hopi snake dance.

Is he serious? Three sentences later: “Nevertheless, much evidence has been accumulated—evidence of varying reliability, true—which indicates either that they exist or that some corresponding areas do.” Is that so.

Bretnor does distinguish between the “verified” “new maps” of Heinlein and Clarke, and the topics mentioned above for which no “new maps” have been drawn, but that this does not mean the latter are automatically fantasy.

(Is he coining the term “new maps” or quoting someone else? Can’t tell. Kingsley Amis uses the term a few years later in his book NEW MAPS OF HELL.)

And then Bretnor sketches the future of SF: the adoption of the attitudes of SF by non-SF; increased academic interest; mediocre SF by non-SF writers; and the growth of the field, including one ‘slick’ magazine within two years. (On this last point, I don’t think it ever happened, with the exception of Analog‘s switch to slick format in the early ’60s, only for a couple years.)


To summarize key, repeated points:

    • SF as a distinct genre was, in 1953, only a quarter century old
    • Much of it is poorly written and conceptually shallow
    • Media (movie and TV) SF is even worse
    • SF became ‘respectable’ following the atomic bomb
    • Opinions about UFOs, parapsychology, and the like, varied widely, but the subjects were taken quite seriously by some
    • Proper science fiction is about the impact of technology on society and especially relies on conscious application of the scientific method, and is a benefit to society by helping readers cope with continuing change.
Posted in Book Notes, Science Fiction Nonfiction | Leave a comment

Link and Comments: Paul Krugman on Know-Nothings

Today’s NYT: Know-Nothings for the 21st Century

Krugman has a few themes he repeats over and over again in his twice-weekly columns, not because he has nothing else to say, but because there is so much new evidence to support those favorite themes. In the Trump administration, and in Republican/conservative behavior generally.

Here, he evokes the “Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors”, with the reminder that the targets then were the Irish and Germans. (My own Kelly family ancestors immigrated to the US from, not Ireland directly, but from the Isle of Man, in the 1860s; Genealogical Post: My Family Trees.)

After all, Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.

Conservatives, racists, and xenophobes exhibit similar behaviors in all eras.

Krugman goes on about lower-case “know-nothings”, and why there are not many conservatives in leading universities.

The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.

One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.

Yet conservative professors are rare even in hard sciences like physics and biology, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.


But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

This rejection of education and knowledge is reflected in the Christian home-schooling movement, and, at an extreme, the West African Boko Haram movement, whose name means, the NYT reminds us this morning, “Western education is forbidden.”

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Links and Comments: Optimists; Bible; Children

Time Magazine’s current issue is called “The Optimists,” and is edited by Bill Gates. Steven Pinker has a piece:

Why We Refuse to See the Bright Side, Even Though We Should

According to the latest data, people are living longer and becoming healthier, better fed, richer, smarter, safer, more connected–and, at the same time, ever gloomier about the state of the world. As the political scientist John Mueller once summed up the history of the West, “People seem simply to have taken the remarkable economic improvement in stride and have deftly found new concerns to get upset about.” How can we explain pessimism in a world of progress?

One answer is an issue I’ve noted repeatedly: the news media, by their nature, focus on the bad, no matter how rare bad incidents may occur. (This doesn’t make the news media bad or dishonest; that’s just the nature of the medium. It has to be understood, the same way advertising must be understood.)

News is about what happens, not what doesn’t happen, so it features sudden and upsetting events like fires, plant closings, rampage shootings and shark attacks. Most positive developments are not camera-friendly, and they aren’t built in a day. You never see a headline about a country that is not at war, or a city that has not been attacked by terrorists–or the fact that since yesterday, 180,000 people have escaped extreme poverty.

NYT writer Nicholas Kristof occasionally echoes the same theme. Today, Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History

As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.

And he cites Pinker (who has a new book coming out in February). Both address psychological issues, how human biases betray clear thinking. Thus there will always be an audience for the likes of Trump.

President Trump rode this gloom to the White House. The idea “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a lost Eden. But really? If that was, say, the 1950s, the U.S. also had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control. Most of the world lived under dictatorships, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5, and it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women and of the worst famine in history.

And one more, at Vox.com: 9 ways the world got a lot better in 2017, by Charles Kenny.

Less famine, fewer deaths from wars and natural disasters, progress against pestilence (via vaccinations), greater life expectancy, more democracy, expanding human rights, fewer very poor people, greener energy.


Also in NYT, an essay about the new Museum of the Bible, which apparently is more a shrine to uncritical veneration than a true museum exploring origins and influences.

The Museum of the Bible Is a Safe Space for Christian Nationalists.

If you walk in thinking that the Bible has a single meaning, that the evidence of archaeology and history has served to confirm its truth, that it is the greatest force for good humanity has ever known and that it is the founding text of the American republic — well, then, you will leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Also, a fascinating piece about what it means if your child is lying to you.

Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.

On the one hand,

Why do some children start lying at an earlier age than others? What separates them from their more honest peers? The short answer is that they are smarter.

On the other, concerning an experiment in which a child is told not to look for a toy,

(Children who don’t peek at the toy in the first place are actually the smartest of all, but they are a rarity.)

Posted in Children, Culture, Human Progress, Religion | Leave a comment

Link and Comments: UFOs and Other Fairy Tales

No I don’t “believe” in UFOs, in the sense of believing them to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, because I’ve long been too familiar with the many ways human perception can go awry and of the many ways reports of supernatural phenomena have turned out to have mundane explanations.

It’s probably worth making this key point: science fiction writers, and readers, are generally far less credulous about such matters than the general population is. That is, just because we read SF doesn’t mean we believe in UFOs or psychics who predict the future or any other supernatural phenomena; that these are recurring themes in mass media SF — movies and TV shows — is because these must appeal to audiences far wider than the relatively hard-minded crowd of SF readers, and it’s partly for this reason that SF movies and TV shows are disrespected by the more knowledgeable and rigorously thinking readers.

Ross Douthat, of all people, makes this in a recent NYT op-ed, Flying Saucers and Other Fairy Tales.

Rather, it’s that our alien encounters, whether real or imaginary, are the same kind of thing as the fairy encounters of the human past — part of an enduring phenomenon whose interpretations shift but whose essentials are consistent, featuring the same abductions and flying crafts and lights and tricks with crops and animals and time and space, the same shape-shifting humanoids and sexual experiments and dangerous gifts and mysterious intentions.

He recalls the Victorian zeal for beliefs in fairies (you know, tiny little winged creatures found amongst the garden flowers), and Erich von Däniken’s of evidence for ancient alien astronauts in the 1960s.

Certainly for most sensible secular scientific-minded people, to say that our era’s close encounters are of the same type as encounters with the unseelie court of faerie is to say that they are all equally imaginary, proceeding from internalized fancies and hallucinatory substances and late-night wrong turns, plus some common evolved subconscious that fears shape-shifting tricksters in modern Nevada no less than in the mists around Ben Bulben.

But then Douthat takes refuge in the (to me equally imaginary) contingencies of his Christian faith.

So the glamour of U.F.O.s, like the glamour of faerie, is an understandable object of curiosity but a dangerous object for any kind of faith. The only kind of God worth trusting is the kind who does not play tricks.

It is trivially easy, of course, to imagine ways in which God’s presence might be made less evasive and dubious than the experience of the real world, and the fragmentary inconsistency of the Gospels, actually provides; and dismiss that fairy tale too.

Posted in Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

Link and Quote: Hitchens on Christmas

Slate reposts a 2008 essay by curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens: ’Tis the Season to Be Incredulous: The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas.

Aesthetics aside; whether Jesus existed or not, was the Son of God or not…

Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body?

Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn’t bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

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Link and Comment: Evangelicals Embrace Trump Because They’re Frightened in a Big World They Don’t Understand

NYT, from Dec. 15th. Amy Sullivan, who describes herself as “a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion”, wonders “how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity.” And realizes, “Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.”

America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism

(On the one hand, I’ve realized it’s not especially productive to react to every opinion piece that observes something new about the Trump phenomenon, because a few weeks later the reference is dated and there are fifty new opinion pieces. On the other hand, I do comment when I see something that speaks to some larger issue… in this case, what the true motives of evangelicals are, since it’s obviously not fidelity to the messages of Jesus and the New Testament.

I do have to say, in general, that the Trump phemenon proves once and for all that evangelicals are not about any kind of spiritual purity or possession of a truth that the heathens refuse to accept. Rather the past two years has shown, beyond everything else to their discredit, that evangelicals are motivated by base tribalism — fear of strangers and change. And in the current case, a visceral reaction by the most racist among us to the occupation of the White House by a black man for eight years.

And the larger point is that this is an enduring aspect of human nature, ready to erupt at any time, anywhere, in any nation no matter how supposedly advanced and convinced of its own superiority. The descent into fascism; one reason civilizations collapse.)

The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.

The writer attends a screening of a film about gun restrictions at a Bible College in North Dakota.

As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.

These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”

It’s mostly about being frightened, about realizing that your small corner of the world isn’t all there is, that there are other kinds of people, people you don’t understand.

They might hear a sermon about what the Bible actually reaches for 30 or 40 minutes a week, but they watch Fox News three or four hours a day. Sullivan quotes evangelical writer Jonathan Martin.

“Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”

“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”

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Links and Comments: Regulations; Science on Sundays; How to Talk to Someone in a Conservative Bubble

Slate: Trump’s quiet attack on the regulatory state is another part of his broader class war

The conservatives’ simplistic rebellion against “regulations” will have consequences, and costs. Regulations are there for a reason.

Yes, these rules and regulations might technically kill jobs. But which jobs, and in order to accomplish what? Protections of this sort chase dodgy sellers out of the marketplace. If that’s job killing, good riddance.

Deregulation, in turn, paves the way for the return of these jobs for financial snake oil salesman.

The White House’s insistence that deregulation is liberty enhancing just goes to show how warped today’s political discourse is. Deregulation privileges the worst products, producers, and service providers over consumers, workers, and responsible businesses. All of these individuals benefit from clear, evidence-based regulations enforced by capable and conscientious public servants.


NY Times, Thomas Hooven, M.D.: Sundays at the Altar of Science

About atheist parents not taking their children to church to hear Bible tales, but by performing basic science experiments instead.

Their communion bread and wine are replaced by baking soda and vinegar, which when combined generate a satisfying volcanic eruption and the opportunity to talk about the ethereal realm of atoms. Sprouts in our windowsill herb garden offer a chance to introduce the concept of DNA. When I tell my son that the granular basil seed holds millions of chromosomes, the look on his face can only be described as revelatory.

The advantage science has is that it’s real.

While I’m sure my kids will encounter religious ideas and stories of miracles before long, I won’t rush them there. Christmas in our house is a celebration of festive decorations and family reunion. We steer clear of the virgin birth and angelic tidings. And although my kids have heard about Santa, they express doubts that I make no effort to dispel. I don’t want to indicate that the natural laws they’ve painstakingly established are subject to occasional suspension.

When they eventually ask me about God, I’ll say that He’s part of a theory a lot of people believe, but which no one has ever proven. And if they want to go to a church, temple or mosque to learn more, I’ll gladly take them. Above all, I want them to reach their own conclusions, whatever those might be.


Daily Kos: Cults, Cons and how to talk to someone in the conservative bubble

As a liberal, part of me keeps hoping that if we can just give conservative the right information their behavior will change.  If we can just prove Russian collusion or show that the tax plan benefits the 0.01% mainly, things will be better. Before being a liberal, I was a borderline 9/11 conspiracy theorist and I did the same thing. I have the truth and if people will only listen to the facts about the second tower or Iraqi oil people will change their behaviors. 

But that’s not how people work. We don’t care about information — at least at first.  We like people and stories we trust most of all.

As smart, information- and fact-based people (“reality  has a liberal bias”) how do we communicate with our co-workers, friends and loved ones? Is it all a lost cause?

It’s not a lost cause because I experienced the change. I was a Rush Limbaugh listening Republican when I was a young man and I changed. It took a lot of love and care from people to get me to change but I did. Did anyone ever sit down and give me all the answers? No. I never said “You know, You are totally right. I see it right here in the newspaper. I am a fool.”  Liberals expect that outcome, but that will never happen. 

In trying to understand my own conversion and the current GOP/Trump mindset, I did a bunch of reading on cults, con artists, FBI negotiators and salesmen- anyone who changes minds. Here are some proven tools that you can use this Holiday season to make some progress…

Points include: don’t argue the facts, that just makes things worse; realize you are dealing with the animal minds, not the rational one (cf. Kahneman); ask them to articulate their thinking; keep lines of communication open; turn off the TV and rely on printed sources. With case studies.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Psychology, Religion, Science | Leave a comment

SFNF: Heinlein addenda from The Science Fiction Novel

Addenda to previous post.

Every time I write up notes based on my reading, something else lingers in the back of my mind that seems especially significant a day or two later. Here’s a couple from the Heinlein essay in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL.

On page 19, he mentions among his examples of fantasy, “any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics…” Star Wars, anyone? What would Heinlein think?

On a similar note, p29, he cautions that a writer of speculative fiction needs to keep himself informed.

It is not enough to interlard an old plot with terms like “space warp,” “matter transmitter,” “ray gun,” or “rocket ship” with no knowledge of what is meant (if anything) by such terms, or how they might reasonably work.

This was perhaps a fair statement in 1957 — yet, on what bases did anyone in 1957 think a space warp or matter transmitter might work? Star Trek, anyone, only a decade later?

But the true point is that, here in 2017, we are surrounded by technology which virtually no one knows, except for the technicians who built individual items, how they work. This is another theme I’ve been teasing: in a sense we live in a world of magic. In Heinlein’s era, technical guys tinkered on their cars, or on radio transmitters, and might plausibly have repaired their TVs. Today? No way. Everything has gotten too complex. Technical guys tinker with apps, or play video games, but how many of them can fix their own cars?

A consequence of this is that all science fiction, especially the popular enterntainment SF Heinlein thought would never happen, depend on technological tropes, assumptions of technological devices that may or may not every appear, and no one pretends to understand how they might actually work.

On the other hand… we do see occasionally speculative physics developments that tease at the plausibility of matter transmitters and space warps. I’m not able to judge whether or not these are merely wishful thinking… based on reading and watching the science fiction of decades ago.

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SFNF: The Science Fiction Novel

The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism is, like Of Worlds Beyond, another slim volume of essays. It was published by Advent (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/advent_publishers, stylized as Advent:Publishers), like Fantasy Press an SF small press, that specialized in critical and bibliographical material, in 1959, and consists of four talks given at the University of Chicago in 1957, by Robert A. Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch, lightly updated for the book. There’s no assigned editor, though SFE says it was edited, anonymously, by Earl Kemp (who the next year compiled a book called Who Killed Science Fiction?, a remarkable work for revealing the angst of SF fans at the changes, in a field of literature all about change, in science fiction of the time).

While no editor is credited on the cover or inside the book, an introduction by Basil Davenport is credited even on the front cover. (He was an academic and occasional anthologist; http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/davenport_basil.) This introduction is remarkable in being rather rude: Davenport spends several pages objecting to several conclusions of the book’s contributors. He admits that this is a bit untoward, but confesses he can’t help himself – that the book is a good one because it invites reader reaction, and argument. I won’t address his objections to the essays themselves, but I will note this remarkable paragraph, p13:

As for defending the unpopular, one of the most striking developments in science fiction since the days of The War of the Worlds [by H.G. Wells] or The Skylark of Space [by E.E. Smith, Ph.D.] has been the realization that men and Martians need not necessarily exterminate or enslave each other. Story after story of encounters with alien races offers the same lesson, that to be different is not necessarily to be evil. And I can think of at least two stories in which the toleration which we are learning to accord the hypothetical is claimed for homosexuals, those aliens in our midst; one of these stories seems to me the most moving and persuasive plea in that regard that I have ever read.

The arc of moral progress! I’m guessing he’s referring to Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 story “The World Well Lost.” But onward to the talks/essays themselves.

Heinlein’s talk, delivered 8 Feb 1957, is called “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues.” He begins by trying to define “science fiction,” and cites previous takes on the term by Damon Knight and Theodore Sturgeon, and then a longer take by Reginald Bretnor, one that involves a three-fold awareness of the scientific method, the body of knowledge collected through that activity, and considering the effects of both of these on human beings. Heinlein then considers borderline cases, such as Sinclair Lewis’ novel Arrowsmith (about current medical research), then considers fantasy as a contrast the science fiction. (Aside: among his examples of fantasy, p19b, are “any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics…” Star Wars, anyone? What would Heinlein think?) After several pages his case is that fantasy is impossible, and science fiction is not, while at the same time allowing time travel and faster then light travel into the SF camp – because, key point, these are not facts, merely “currently respected theory.”

He then lays out all possible fiction into six groups:

Realistic Fiction

  1. Historical fiction
  2. Contemporary-scene fiction
  3. Realistic future-scene fiction

Fantasy fiction

  1. Fantasy laid in the past
  2. Fantasy laid in the present
  3. Fantasy laid in the future

Mainstream fiction is 1 and 2 in the first group; class 3 there is only science fiction; but that a great deal of fake “science” fiction is found in class 3 in the fantasy section.

He then goes on to examine additional examples that might challenge this scheme, and what strikes me most about these paragraphs, and similar ones in other essays, is how many titles and authors presumably familiar to readers at the time are now utterly forgotten. Frank G. Slaughter? Maxwell Griffith? Vincent McHugh?

As if moving down a checklist of topics to discuss, Heinlein then considers whether SF is prophecy. No, but it can seem to be, by virtue of following the news; and he then provides backgrounds for two of his own stories that were seemingly prophetic, “Waldo” and “Solution Unsatisfactory.” “As a ‘prophecy’ I was taking as much chance as a man who predicts tomorrow’s sunrise.” Another example: speculation on space suits led to the development of actual space suits. He mentions a number of scientists who write science fiction, then takes apart a passage from The Saturday Review (the kind of outsider perspective that David Langford would head with “As Others See Us”) concerning rockets and atomic power their depiction in “this somewhat crude form of entertainment”… The statement is entirely “unadulterated tosh,” says Heinlein.

Concerning literary merit, how should SF be judged? By the same standards as any other field of fiction. How does SF measure up? Not very well, he admits. It’s more difficult to write SF because of the demands of background and plausibility, that can’t rely on shorthand familiarity with the reader the way westerns or history stories can.

As a result, he notes, there isn’t a great volume of good SF. He runs down another list of titles and authors, and here again, John S. Martin? Susan Ertz? Others of course remain famous: Kornbluth, Asimov, Orwell, del Rey, Clement, Wells.

Of what use is science fiction?

It is the most alive, the most important, the most useful, the most comprehensive fiction being published today. It is the only fictional medium capable of interpreting the change, hand-long rush of modern life.

P41. While “serious” literature is “a retreat to the womb in the face of a world too complicated and too frightening for their immature spirits.” He dismisses Miller, Sartre, Joyce, et al as the “ash-can school of realism” and goes on, “In any case, I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals and commuters who are unhappy with their wives—for goodness sake! Let them find other wives, other jobs—and shut up!” – a passage I quote as much to suggest what Heinlein thought ‘mainstream’ fiction of the day was apparently mostly about.

He bewares of “anti-science fiction” in which science and scientists are things to be feared and blamed for problems – “Its childish, screaming, afraid-of-the-dark hysteria is easy to spot.”

Where does SF go from here? Only a slow increase in amount and quality, “We should not expect it ever to become mass entertainment, as it is directed primarily at the superior young person and secondarily at his thoughtful elder.”

While the four talks/essays in this book all ostensibly address the same topic – how science fiction novels function as social criticism – they all answer as if asked quite different questions. Heinlein discussed SF in general and never addressed its social function, except in the broadest terms. C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism” justifies its title by taking the subject to mean whether any works of science fiction have had actual impact on society compared to… Don Quixote, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Babbit, and a couple others. Well, no. He digresses through a passage from Moby Dick to claim that the reason for this ineffectiveness is that SF is too inward. P55: “In science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation.”

And then explains the failures of Gulliver’s Travels to actually “accomplish” anything. And moves on to, of all people, Dr. E. E. Smith and quickly excoriates his Skylark stories as childish power fantasies. Smith’s later series, the Galactic Patrol, regresses to infancy; humans in these stories “are responsible for propitiating their wise protectors who give them magic amulets; they are responsible for avoiding their terrible and omnipotent assailants. All other activity is meaningless, a mask, a system of levers leading to the only great source of good and evil. Humans beings are, in short, about eighteen months old.” (Not much potential for social criticism there.)

He considers works by Wilson Tucker and Olaf Stapledon and then comes to Orwell, whose 1984 he admires greatly despite the fact that it didn’t actually do anything to combat tyranny. Kornbluth goes on to explore two symbolic layers of the book, one literal – Winston Smith’s life as compared to the author’s boyhood – and one unconscious – how Room 101 itself and certain language in the novel as symbolizing “torment and destruction in the womb” p71. Both claims strike me as remarkably plausible and insightful (having just reread the book last year).

He grants some small effect had by Pohl’s and his own The Space Merchants (even as he admits that if asked to rewrite it, it would come out differently).

And then he ends on a note that echoes Heinlein: he denigrates the “menace” or “monster” story – his example is Matheson’s The Shrinking Man – that trade in fear, whose characters are irrational, that appeal only to readers’ terrors and fright, whose targets are scientists and intellectuals.

Number three is Alfred Bester’s “Science Fiction and the Renaissance Man” and it’s almost embarrassingly out of place among the other three. It reads like a transcript of an after-dinner speech met to keep the audience in stitches, with regular one-liners – example: “Put any man at loose ends and he invariably starts to write a book. As a matter of fact if you put a man in jail he also starts to write a book. I don’t know if this parallel is significant, but I do know that there are many authors I’d like to see in jail.” Bada boom – and repeated digressions about the hectic pace of his job as a radio script writer, or about the nature of men vs. women. I’ll summarize the points he makes that do speak to the topic.

  • He attributes success not so much to smarts but to charm, and cites Campbell, Gold, and various writers with strong personalities as having high CQs.
  • Science fiction only works in moments of leisure, calm, euphoria.
  • Which is why women aren’t into SF; they are realists, men are the romantics. He goes on about women’s magazines…
  • SF is about ‘big’ decisions that are abstract and not concerned with matters of daily life.
  • “A woman can come home ecstatic because she bought a three-dollar item reduced to two-eighty-seven, but a man needs more. … Life is enough for most women; most thinking men must ask why and whither.” (p89) (Remember this is 1957)
  • So SF has no purpose and no value. It’s for the modern renaissance man, “vigorous, versatile, zestful… full of romantic curiosity and impractical speculation.”
  • SF is no more serious than TV. Can it move us? No. Why? Because Americans care about ‘literary religion’, e.g. who really wrote Shakespeare, but have no similar feelings about science. SF is about situations; not people.

Moving on…

The best essay, the one that best explores the ostensible theme of the book, is by Robert Bloch, remarkable in that Bloch has never been considered an SF writer (rather, a fantasy and horror writer). His essay is called “Imagination and Modern Social Criticism.”

He recalls growing up bookish and how influential writers and speakers – Stowe, Twain, Rogers, Dreiser, Sinclair, Steinbeck – gave way, after World War II, to books that rather put forth “great and inspiring messages.” E.g., “those books about businessmen … which prove that big businessmen really do their best for the country, and like, the old saying has it, ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.’”

Leading to the current situation: the only place to find modern social criticism is in science fiction, “a form of writing so minor that most serious literary reviewers aren’t even aware of it.” (p101) How did this happen? Maybe SF gained importance following the atomic bomb. (A point echoed elsewhere.)

To explore this, Bloch says he chose 50 SF novels, at random, to reread, classify, and consider. He uses the traditional themes Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man. Only a few fit the first two categories; fully 35 fall into Man Against Man. (He lists them, by title, and again, most are familiar to me, but some draw blanks: Nutro 29? The Golden Kazoo? Highways in Hiding? P102-103.)

But then he observes that the dramatic premises of many of these books are mostly simplistic – good guys vs. bad guys. Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. The common plot is the revolt against organized society, by a hero whom an adolescent reader is likely to identify. It’s significant that, unlike the current mainstream, SF sees the status quo as the villain. And again and again, we read about the Hero Who Saves the World.

(I might mention I got tired of this story fairly early on in my reading life – I think the breaking straw was Gordon R. Dickson’s novel Time Storm, in 1977 – and saw the recurrence of this theme in fantasy as a deterrent to that genre almost entirely. And found that short fiction, rather than novels, avoided such plot tropes. Is this what Thomas Disch meant by considering science fiction as a branch of children’s literature?)

Bloch goes on: These heroes are too important; they are presented as extraordinary men who immediately confront the “highest figures in the Hierearchy,” as John Carter does on Mars; in contrast to 1984, about ordinary people.

He boils down the clichés of future societies in SF.

  1. A totalitarian state
  2. An underground
  3. Forcible psychotherapeutic techniques
  4. How science will go along with the gag
  5. Economic incentives will remain supreme
  6. Angle-Saxon culture will continue to rule the world
  7. We will colonize and rule the natives of other planets
  8. The future holds little basic change
  9. Individualism is dead

As an example, he quotes at length his earlier review of Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, about a future society in which certain aspect of human nature – such as a culture of honor that allows people to gun down each other in the street over perceived slights – are depicted as inescapable aspects of human nature. Bloch takes issue with this premise, and to be fair, he notes, in other books Heinlein presents quite different theses.

Perhaps instead, Bloch suggests, we need not better government, but better citizens. He considers how the heroes of Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, are driven by revenge. What is good and evil? Most SF is no more discriminating on this subject than the crudest crime thriller (Bloch cites Mickey Spillane). Issues are solved by punches in the jaw and bullets to the gut. [[ Still true in 1960s Star Trek, as I’ve noted. And this general issue about the refinement of the human moral sense is, again, addressed in Steven Pinker. ]]

Bloch hopes for SF that doesn’t rely on Key Figures, heroes, but on intelligent, ordinary people. He gives some examples that do.

Against the more popularly-held notions in the science fiction field that technology will save the world, or mass-psychological conditioning will save the world, these few dissenters stand, affirming that only man’s spirit avails to save himself. They preach evolution rather than revolution, evaluation rather than revelation, individual right rather than individual might.

But SF needs an audience. And he notes that SF short fiction has wider latitudes to explore social issues. Yet, considering novel, as SF failed as social criticism? No; it provides a mirror of the very attitudes we need to reexamine and reflect upon.

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SFNF: Eshbach, Of Worlds Beyond

I’m revisiting some classic critical nonfiction books about science fiction, beginning with Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s OF WORLDS BEYOND, a collection of essays by Heinlein, Campbell, Williamson, and others. This is the book where Heinlein identifies 3 basic plots and his 5 rules for being a successful writer, and A.E. van Vogt describes his technique of writing in 800-word scenes that include every idea that pops into his head as he writes.

Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, ed., OF WORLDS BEYOND: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947)

Eshbach (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/eshbach_lloyd_arthur) founded Fantasy Press, one of the earliest small publishers devoted to science fiction, in 1946, and compiled this ‘symposium’ of seven essays a year later. It’s a short book at 96 pages. I have a fine copy of the first edition, hardcover with dust jacket inside a Brodart plastic wrapper, that I bought from Robert Madle at World Fantasy Con in 1993. I read it at the time, and am rereading it now.

Eshbach’s Introduction notes that, in 1947, that while “stories of worlds beyond” are as old as human imagination, the field of “speculative fiction” had formed only in the past 20 years. “It appears to be well on its way toward becoming the fiction of the Atomic Age.”

The essays are by Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine (pen-name of CalTech mathematician Eric Temple Bell), Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., and John W. Campbell, Jr. Each short essay is preceded by page or two ‘editor’s preface’ and a black and white photo of the author, in the formal clothes and generally stern expressions of the day. (Except for van Vogt, who looks a bit wild-eyed.)

At least a couple of these essays formulate authorial philosophies that have been passed down over the decades as common writerly wisdom, at least in the SF field. The star of the show is Heinlein, whose essay is “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”. The editor’s intro notes that Heinlein had recently begun to sell stories to the ‘slicks’ – that is, the high-end glossy general interest magazines, like Saturday Evening Post, that paid much more than the SF magazines of the day, like Astounding and Amazing. (In retrospect, Heinlein was and remained an outlier, with the limited exceptions of Bradbury and Clarke, for the next two or three decades.)

Here are some salient points from Heinlein’s essay:

  • He quotes Kipling: “There are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays / And every single one of them is right!”
  • He starts by claiming there are two ways to write speculative fiction: write about people, or write about gadgets. He prefers the former. [ Apparently ‘gadget’ fiction was more prevalent in the very early SF magazines, in stories which nowadays are never reprinted. ]
  • He states the three main plots for the human interest story: “boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better”. He credits the last to L. Ron Hubbard, only because he had not realized that many of his own stories fitted that plot.
  • The first plot is obvious, and has many variations. The second is about “the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa”.
  • The third is about “a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts”. He mentions example stories, including his own.
  • He dismisses various supposed SF stories as being fictionalized essays, or faux SF stories which could easily be translated to “Fifth Avenue, in 1947”; and he sets aside stories of contemporary advances in science or technology.
  • “A story is not about the new situation; it is about coping with problems arising out of the new situation”, p15
  • And he defines the “Simon-pure” sf story: conditions are different from now; they must be essential part of the story; the problem, the “plot”, must be a human problem; this problem must be derived by that new condition; and, finally, no established fact shall be violated (with various exceptions).
  • He gives examples.
  • And then finally, he gives his famous fives business habits for a successful writer:
    • You must write.
    • You must finish what you start.
    • You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
    • You must put it on the market.
    • You must keep it on the market until sold.
  • And he concludes: “[I]f you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at them”.
  • [[ Thus, is my thought, is that Heinlein’s famous five rules were appropriate to the era of writing when very many cheap magazines were being published, some of which had very low criteria for acceptance and were desperate for material. That’s not so true now. On the other hand, in the 21st century a person can self-publish anything, so in that sense no editorial vetting need apply. ]]

The second essay, by John Taine, is titled “Writing a Science Novel” and his main concern is keeping up on current scientific developments. His key points are Knowledge, Education, and Consistency.

(Taine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Temple_Bell,  is probably the least-remembered of all the writers in this book; but he wrote over a dozen novels, of which the most prominent might be Before the Dawn, included in Donald A. Wollheim’s The Portable Novels of Science Fiction in 1945, along with works by Wells, Lovecraft, and Stapledon. (I have a 1st edition copy of that book too.)

By ‘Knowledge’ he means keeping up on current science, via books and journals. He notes p23 that “It is wise to glance at the date of publication of any book on science. If the book is more than ten years old (two or five in some of the physical sciences), it had probably better be put back on the shelf.” This I have echoed in my own recent thought that, while religions venerate the most ancient books (no matter how overtaken by later discoveries and understandings), for science or philosophy it’s the new books that count; the newest books take into account the older books and build upon them.

He discusses scientific journals, but advises that “there is not a single periodical of this kind published in the United States that is worth its subscription price” and suggests unnamed titles from English and Germany instead. (This was 1947; what did he mean? Not Scientific American? But Nature and Science?) And he suggests attending lectures at local universities.

By ‘Education’ he means “the narrow sense of learning how to write a story that people will read”, and goes on to be skeptical about classes in learning to write. And he wonders, once the science is settled, “we land at once in unsettled controversies. What, for example, about a love interest?”

Yikes. We are in 1947. These notions about females in science fiction appear in several of these essays. Taine goes on:

If there is some logical (or biological) reason why a luscious heroine should display her charms in a science novel, she does not have to be lugged in by the hair. She will enter by herself, usually uninvited by the writer and sometimes to his exasperation. As a general rule, love interest in scientific fiction is a red herring to bewilder the reader and turn him off a trail that should, but does not, lead straight from the beginning to the end of the story. If there is not sufficient sexless interest in the story to hold the reader’s attention, no fortuitous blonde is going to lure him on to the last page. Yet many a misguided writer has got not only himself but his stories all fouled up with superfluous women.

Science fiction is one of the places where a pretty girl can be a damned nuisance. Conversely, almost any type of scientific fiction is no peg on which to hang a love story.

This passage also touches on another recurring theme in these essays: that the whole point of writing stories is to sell them and appeal to readers.

And by ‘Consistency’ he means what we’ve come to expect: no matter what the premise of an SF story, its consequences need to flow logically and consistently. And on this point, to give editor Eshbach credit, this essay flows logically to the next…

The third essay is Jack Williamson’s “The Logic of Fantasy”. He cites two principles, one from H.G. Wells: to assume in any one story only a single basic premise. The second is about the logic of character. He considers several of his own stories as examples. And he mentions things like this: “Science fiction is doubtless more popular nowadays than fantasy of the supernatural type, because science has become the modern equivalent of magic.”

One must go on, remembering this is 1947:

Now, when the news is filled with atomic weapons, rocket test flights, and astounding reports of “flying saucers,” the threshold of doubt is very low for scientific wonders. Old-style magic is somewhat out of fashion—thought doubtless some readers turn gladly to it, just to escape the harassing wonders of the scientific age.

And then he talks about the various current SF magazines.

One chain caters to sheer paranoia. Another magazine is mostly action-adventure, excellently written, with a minimum of heavy science. A third group offers a wide range of more adult material, ranging from ghost stories to highbrow science. A fourth magazine is deliberately edited for technicians, often using heavily scientific stories and articles. And the general magazines, including the “slicks,” are beginning to feature fantasy and science fiction.”

He discusses more examples of his own stories. Then he generalizes:

In the story-opening, the chief character responds to something in terms of purpose—and the plot interest depends greatly on how novel and vital his purpose is. In the body of the narrative, that same purpose impels him to make a series of attempts toward satisfaction. Usually he meets failures which test his motive traits, incidentally stirring his own emotions and the reader’s. In the ending, he either wins or fails, and the significant outcome of the test is made clear.

He attributes this frame of the action story to Dr. John Gallishaw, about whom I find this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gallishaw. I recall hearing this basic strategy for an SF story – problem, one attempt to solve that fails, a second attempt that fails, finally a third attempt, which either succeeds or fails – from Algis Budrys on a convention panel many years ago.

In striking contrast is the fourth essay, by A. E. van Vogt, titled “Complication in the Science Fiction Story.” Van Vogt’s scheme is to break every story down into scenes of 800 (or 600 or 1000) words, each scene with a purpose that is either accomplished, or not, by the end of the scene. Van Vogt’s scheme, furthermore, is:

Ever since I started writing for the science fiction field, it has been my habit to put every current thought into the story I happened to be working on. Frequently, an idea would seem to have no relevance, but by mulling over it a little, I would usually find an approach that would make it usable.

At the same time, he gives a couple examples from his own stories in which an intermediate conclusion (e.g. end of scene three) provides that “all the rest followed logically.” (p54) (I confess I don’t find the examples terribly persuasive to commend this kitchen-sink style of plotting.)

He also discusses what he calls plot “threads”, wherein longer stories need more threads, even if some are very minor. Some of these “minor threads” derive from “theme, science and atmosphere.” P57b. His example of atmosphere, from the opening of his story “M33 in Andromeda,” is what I think most readers today would call purple pulp prose:

The night whispered, the immense night of space that pressed against the hurtling ship. Voiceless susurration it was, yet somehow coherent, alive, deadly. For it call, it beckoned and it warned. It trilled with a nameless happiness, then hissed with savage, unthinkable frustration.

That’s enough, though vV quotes on. He reiterates his 800-word scene thesis, with new ideas appearing ideally one per scene. And he mentions, as do most of these essays, how the ultimate goal of writing is to sell stories.

There are three remaining essays: L. Sprague de Camp on “Humor in Science Fiction”; Edward E. Smith, Ph.D. on “The Epic of Space” (I don’t think anyone this days, except the occasional writer of science fact articles in Analog, bylines themselves with academic credentials, but it was common back then, and Smith’s was the most prominent such); and John W. Campbell, Jr. on “The Science of Science Fiction Writing”.

The ideas in de Camp’s essay are unremarkable. The essence of humor is a surprise: an oddity, or an anachronism. He stresses that humor should avoid offense in the realms of religion or politics. He mentions, p69, that “Western culture in general has become increasingly humane – or squeamish if you prefer—during the last few centuries, so that a lot of formerly legitimate subjects for humor are no longer considered as such.” And provides examples about the hilarity of burning witches, denigrating certain racial and religious minorities, and so on. This subject dovetails with a theme of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I’ve finished and will summarize here soon) that social standards have ‘progressed’ to the point where things once taken for granted, such as casual violence against various targets, is now unthinkable.

De Camp mentions one notion I had not heard, the Polynesian word ‘noa’ as a counterpart to ‘tabu’ [taboo], where ‘noa’ means profane, vulgar, or commonplace (p70). You can’t joke about something tabu; nor can you joke about something noa, something too commonplace. The ideal area for joking is in the middle, as in relaxing standards about nudity. In any event, de Camp concludes, a humorous story still must have all the qualities of any good story.

Smith, author of the popular early space opera series Skylark and Lensmen, discusses how to write a “space story.” He discusses the elements of a good story; here are a couple examples, p76:

It is a well-known fact that many readers, particularly those whose heads are of use only in keeping their ears apart, want action, and only action. Slambang action; the slammier and the bangier the better.

Should the characters grow, or not? Many writers—good ones, at that—do not let their characters grow. It is easier. Also, it allows a series of stories about the same characters to go on practically endlessly…

He goes on to consider various elements of a story, including whether the author should have his hero be married off by the end. (While not familiar with much SF of Smith’s era, I recognize this plot point as common from what I have read, including Smith’s first novel, The Skylark of Space.) He passes through coincidence, and motivation, and then dwells at length on how he went about concocting a ‘space-police’ story. First, by reading every prior example he could find. And then by outlining his story, first in a few pages, then with a graph to plan “the peaks of emotional intensity and the valleys of characterization and background material.” A pencil draft; notes to it; a second pencil draft; then ‘typescript’ draft typed up by his wife; notes on it from his fan clubs in Michigan and Los Angeles; then a final typescript, typed by his wife, which goes to John W. Campbell.

Finally, “The Science of Science Fiction Writing” by John. W. Campbell, Jr. Here again is the utilitarian angle: the first line is “The author’s effort in science fiction writing, or any other type of writing, is to please the editor sufficiently to make a sale.” He goes on to describe what he, as an editor believes is needed for a good science fiction story: Prophetic extrapolation; and a story about human beings.

In older science fiction, the Machine and the Great Idea predominated. Modern readers—and hence editors!—don’t want that; they want stories of people living in a world where a Great Idea, or a series of them, and a Machine, or machines, form a background. But it is the man, not the idea of the machine that is the essence.

He discusses, from his editorial perspective, how frequently stories have good ideas but poor treatment; while even overly familiar ideas can be treated well, with examples of stories by de Camp and Williamson. He sighs about having to reject stories that are mere ideas.

The author’s function is to imagine for the reader, of course—but he must either (a) imagine in greater detail than the reader has, or (b) imagine something the reader hasn’t thought of. Ideally, the author imagines something new, in greater detail.

Examples from Asimov and Heinlein (mentioned as Anson MacDonald). He rails against the first-person story, which limits what can be told. And he opines that writers are born, not made, considering how many of his writers – Heinlein, van Vogt, de Camp – sold their first stories submitted.

Then he addresses “style” – “it is based on the way an author puts his ideas into English”. And contrasts various writers, including Sturgeon. But then explains that such techniques cannot be used consciously, and describes how L. Ron Hubbard would “gather momentum” in order to write (on an electric typewriter!) 3000 to 4000 words an hour.

Finally, he discusses how writers start their stories, and whether or not they know how to end them. For Astounding, “We do not insist on a happy ending!” With examples from Williamson and Padgett [Henry Kuttner].

Well, no, *finally*, he advises against submitting manuscripts that are handwritten, or typed in red ink on yellow paper. Don’t send it rolled. Last line: “If you take the trouble to write a yarn—send it in!.

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