I’ve been slowly culling my enormous book collection; as I get older, the prospect of moving so many books gets grimmer. Anything I won’t reread gets donated to someone who will, which includes a long collection of Nebula anthologies. A lot of those stories weren’t for me.
But I leaf through each before tossing it into the donate pile. My scruffy, aged copy of Nebula Award Stories Six nearly followed others until I noted that the introduction was by Thomas D. Clareson, a SF scholar and critic who, in company with his wife Alice, used to visit the spouse and me a couple times a year—whenever he was on the West Coast. We would talk for hours about science fiction, fantasy, history, culture, and he would share anecdotes about the golden age figures he knew.
I decided I’d keep the book for that essay alone, until I looked at the table of contents: edited by Clifford D. Simak, featuring stories by respected names such as Gene Wolfe and Theodore Sturgeon, with one of Fritz Leiber’s most famous stories, and ending with Joanna Russ in the place of honor at the end.
Sadly, I had to read the copy carefully, as it was printed on very cheap paper that has yellowed badly over the decades.
Clareson’s essay, written in 1971, explores what he thinks are the reasons why sf and f have enjoyed such a recent explosion.
He starts by quoting a scholar named Edwin B. Burgam, who published an essay in the mid-sixties on Freud and fantasy, in which he said, “The rise of the novel of fantasy is the most noteworthy innovation in present-day fiction throughout the Western world.”
Burgam goes on, Clareson says, to maintain that whatever its devotion to verisimilitude, modern fiction has transcended the literal and striven for symbolic statement.
Clareson doesn’t fault Burgam’s conclusions, but says that his lack of perspective is disturbing. For one thing, Burgam totally dismisses science fiction from consideration. He also ignores the fantasists who wrote steadily through the early half of the twentieth century—people like E.R. Eddison, Anthony Burgess, and so on. But mostly Burgam seems unaware of just how old fantasy is, and how it has always run parallel to evolving fashions for realism.
I remember reading a scathing essay from Samuel Johnson about the fashion for ‘realism’ and how unrealistic it truly is. A hundred years before him, Milton wrestled with realism, imagination and truth, and for a while teetered between writing a great epic about King Arthur’s world, though war and death of dear ones finally pushed him toward what he saw as Biblical truth.
Renaissance–Greek mythology–the farther back you go, the more you discover a tension between the fantastical and realism. The most enduring works employ both.
Clareson offers a series of possible reasons for the rise in popularity of sf and f: rapid scientific advancement that inspires literature to comment on its impact (negative or positive) on everyday life, prophetic and cautionary.
The result has been an ever-increasing diversity within the genre. What past writers have done is never lost or forgotten; it is recombined, given different emphasis, fused with new materials as current writers shape it to express their own visions and nightmares.
Instead of lamenting the appearance of “different” stories or bemoaning the demise of science fiction because one’s favorite kind(s) of story no longer dominates the genre, one should realize that the “yeasting” now going on gives science-fiction a fresh complexity, a fresh vitality.
Interesting view of the genre in1971, I think. I also think it holds true now. Sure there are repetitive patterns for so many reasons, but literature has always been in conversation with itself, including its own version of phatic discourse.
But why did sf and f take off so spectacularly in the mid-sixties in such a way that it is not only huge now, but has gone mainstream?
Some feel that certain cultural milestones rejuvenated sf and f in such a way as to draw in enthusiasts from outside fandom, and there’s no arguing with that, for those of us who remember standing in line for hours—over and over—to see Star Wars, after a largely uninspired decade of movies. And then of course, Harry Potter revolutionized children’s literature as well as both reflected and influenced fantasy.
I think the cultural breakdown of the sixties, accelerated by the youth movement of so very many youth, helped that initial spark in the middle of the sixties. I even remember the works that “everybody” was discovering (and by the way, none were the usual sixty thousand words which was then pretty much the limit for publishers): Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Stranger in a Strange Land.
Since then rapid technological change has propagated outward, and cultural fashions cycle rapidly through “fifties” and “steam-powered Victoriana” and now the eighties are suddenly cool in some circles, after being considered clownlishly unhip for years—like the fifties were to my generation.
I also think that sf and f scratch the awe itch, the longing or curiosity for something bigger than ourselves and what we see of our world. Even if it’s scary.
I tend to think that the longer we can go without plunging ourselves into world war that kills millions and takes a generation or two to recover from, enables us to play out different imaginary scenarios. Even if we know they are totally unrealistic, the ones we tend to respond to the strongest are in some sense real, and true, “lies breathed through silver.”
What do you think?