The Fantastical Explosion


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.

Clareson says:

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?




The Fantastical Explosion — 15 Comments

  1. I have mentioned my cravings for other worlds before, but another reason I liked SciFi and Fantasy was that few other stories took virtue seriously. There was a lot of cultural breakdown in those days. Now rebuilt, I hope, as something stronger, better, and more inclusive. But at the time media of all sorts seemed suffused with alienation and cynicism.

    • “The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

      ? David Foster Wallace

  2. It’s amusing that in 1971 Clareson was urging people not to bemoan the loss of their particular style of story–and that’s still the sort of thing going on today.

  3. A proper answer to this question ought not just to explain our craving for sf&f, but why that craving did not manifest itself so strongly earlier. I’d like to make two notes:

    1) Darrell Schweitzer has proposed a theory that, while SF had once been respectable (Verne and especially Wells were read by the mainstream), Hugo Gernsback’s founding of a hack pulp magazine drove SF into a ghetto of literary disdain which it took decades to emerge out of, the Campbellian revolution being just the first baby steps in this. Indeed, Colin Wilson in his essay on Tolkien suggests that LOTR’s popularity was due to its being the first notable quality SF-like novel since Gernsback’s day, though that’s probably an exaggeration.

    2) There was a fad for fantasy in the 1920s – not really genre fantasy as we now know it, but Cabell was popular then, and Robert Nathan got his start. But literary tastes changed with the onset of the Depression. Hard times meant less patience with light whimsy, and social realism of the Hemingway-Steinbeck sort took off. (Indeed, even Steinbeck’s work of the 20s – I don’t know Hemingway well – had been much less hard in this respect than his social commentary works of the 30s.) In the late 30s, Nathan published an omnibus edition of some of his 20s novels, and felt obliged to add an apologia of an introduction for reprinting such socially “irrelevant” literature in such socially relevant times. He said there was a human need for the kind of more inner writing he offered, and hoped that an awareness of this would come back. He was right – his most lasting success, Portrait of Jennie, was still ahead of him – but the really striking thing about his introduction is the month with which he signed it, December 1937, because that was the same month that, in a quiet bedroom in North Oxford, an obscure professor began writing the work that would eventually make Nathan’s dreams come true.

    • But literary tastes changed with the onset of the Depression. Hard times meant less patience with light whimsy,

      eh, a fair chunk of that may have been not a change in taste but a change of politics, including a greater desire to push literature into the service of said politics. After all, the movies didn’t turn grim and gritty.

      Tom Simon has some interesting reflections here

  4. The change in the fantasy genre has been, really, its sharper demarcation from all other types. Take fairy tales. We find recognizable forms of them in very old literature, but it’s not until the Renaissance that we find a collection that is all fairy tales and nothing else, and it’s only grown since then.

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  6. I have always felt that fantasy and SF give me license to talk about all the things that many people insist they don’t want to talk or think about…but they privately think about all the time. Chances are there is a flavor or a stripe of the rainbow for everyone.

    But it’s a shame that an attempt to break the book market into convenient selling sections gave rise to “this is better than this.” It took Le Guin decades to be recognized, and she just kept asking those questions in fiction.

    I also believe that fantasy and SF can create empathy in a reader. Maybe we *can* do something for peace.