Monday, 3 June 2013

The History of the Science Fiction Magazine volume 2: Introduction

If anyone needed a demonstration of how technology was changing the world then World War Two was surely it. The Great War was the first time that the new toys got a proper outing – mass transit, telecommunications, air power, chemical weapons, high-powered explosives – but the technology was still in its infancy. Meanwhile, military thinking hadn’t really caught up with the possibilities - leading to massacres like Gallipoli and the agonising stalemate of the western front - and the military structures of the main participants were still based on obsolete aristocratic models.

Frighteningly, it was the bad guys who figured it out first: if anyone truly foresaw the potential of the sorts of ideas bandied around by Gersnback and his associates it was the freshly minted tyrannies of Europe and Western Asia.

By the time World War two came along, the military powers had had time to develop a solid theory of warfare based aroundnew technology, mass production and relatively egalitarian corporate management structures. Suddenly, science fiction leapt from the pages of the pulps and into the real world in the most dramatic way, climaxing in a moment of cataclysmic destruction that brought home humanity’s new found powers over the material world. The apocalypse that had previously been the domain of gods was now well within the grasp of humanity.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this era brought science fiction to maturity. SF had been exploring the effects of technology and radically re-shaped societies since the time of H G Wells. The science fiction writers were the ones that recognised the truth in these prophetic visions and ran with them.

Ashley highlights a boom in SF publications in about 1939. This is the era that saw the d├ębuts of the great ABC of SF – Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke – as well as genre-defining authors like Pohl & Kornbluth, Heinlein, A E van Vogt, L Sprague de Camp, John Wyndham (under various versions of his real name) and a host of others.

As it grew more popular, it seemed to change, as well. Ashley says, 'It was no longer the Gernsbackian purveyor of sience taught through fiction. Instead it was essentially the scientific adventure, ranging from the juvenilistic adventures of Planet Stories and Amazing, to the scientific and political prognostications of Astounding.' I would also detect a decline in the influence of the gothic and melodrama in favour of a dryer, more detached and contemporary feel. Similarly fantasy of the Weird Tales type was being replaced with a more urbane style in Unknown.

What’s very striking in both the previous volume and this one is how much a youth cult science fiction was. Many of the authors represented in the first volume were prodigiously young: G Peyton Wertenbaker was 19 when he wrote TheComing fo the Ice, Lloyd Arthur Eschbach 21 when he wrote The Voice From the Ether, Raymond Z Gallum a relative veteran at 24 when he wrote Davy Jones' Ambassador. In this volume we see magazine being taken over by the first generation of fans: John Campbell sold his first story at 19 and took the reigns of Astounding at 26, Frederick Pohl took over editorial duties on Super Science Stories and Astonishing at 19, while Charles Hornig was given the editor’s job at Wonder Stories when he was just 17.

In his introduction, Ashley also notes the high proportion of magazines aimed at a younger readership. Young readers were hungry for the new ideas offered by SF. It offered change, novelty, a world unlike the staid world of their parents and grandparents. Even today, SF (and to a larger extent fantasy) thrives on the young adult readership, and the commercial revival of the genre in recent years owes a huge favour to readers in the teens. 

Those European tyrannies were based on offering a new way of life that broke with the past and offered new ways of living. It was a curious mix of influences, like SF itself: the socially radical futurists and the common-sense sobriety of the protestant capitalist class, even if the latter was expressed through Marxist ideals. It added in the lingering echoes of the romantic and Gothic traditions and on occasion a hefty dose of mad science to justify their actions.

What sort of brave new world can we imagine today? Google Glass and a new type of iPhone? In an age where youth unemployment in the Eurozone tops 25 per cent, where are the ideologies that offer the chance to topple the satus quo? Not in the techno libertarianism of sci fi: that IS the status quo of venture capitalists, dotcom millionaires, software giants and big pharma. Is it any surprise that the boom in young adult SF seems to be largely composed of dystopia like The Hunger Games or Feed (by M T Anderson) and the melodramatic teen angst of the 'urban fantasy'.

Science fiction went to war in the years covered in this volume, fighting over how the future would look. I’ll be interested to see how (or indeed whether) this idea is reflected in the stories coming up.

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