Sunday, 30 June 2013

Up There by Donald Wolheim

First Published in Science Fiction Quarterly, summer 1942.

The Futurians in 1938 - DAW is top row at the right.*
Coming straight after Lowndes, we have one of the most important editors in the later development of SF. Wolheim was already a seasoned pro at age 28 when this story was published, having made his first professional sale 10 years previously. He was an active SF fan and had been involved in one of the earliest of fandom’s schisms. 

In the 30s, Hugo Gernsback had used the pages of Wonder Stories to promote the official-sounding ‘Science Fiction League’ as a kind of rallying point for the growing fandom movement. Ashley observes that ‘For science fiction fans [emphasis in original] the fiction came secondary in Wonder Stories.’ One of SF’s biggest magazines had become a house organ for a social group, rather than being about stories at all.

Wolheim was expelled from the Science Fiction League in 1935. He’d been responsible for setting up the International Scientific Association which, in Ashley’s words, ‘opposed the Science Fiction League’ on the basis that fan organisations should be separate from commercial publishers. The feud lasted a few years and numerous splinter and fringe groups grew up in its wake, like protestant religious factions in the 17th century. Wolheim was later a founding member of The Futurians, perhaps the most influential group in the history of SF, and certainly in the genre’s golden age.

In light of all this, this story becomes less an individual work and more like a rallying cry for certain types of fan.

‘Up There’ is a very gentle story. It has a disarmingly wry tone that invites the reader to smile indulgently at both the apparently eccentric old Uncle Ephraim who believes the stars are painted on the dome of night sky and the puzzled nephew who narrates. It’s based on a theory expounded by Charles Fort, that the ideas of contemporary astronomers were no less based on distant observation than their discredited ancestors – why should we believe the modern observers over their ancestors? Do have they have any more evidence than the astronomer’s of antiquity?

Charles Fort’s book Lo! was serialised in Astounding in 1934, and so his ideas entered the SF community. This wasn’t the first story to use his ideas and it certainly wasn’t the last time that this kind of pseudo-science fed-in to the grand SF narrative. When we come to look at vol 3 of the series we’ll have time to consider such unedifying spectacle as the Shaver mysteries and Joseph Campbell’s enthusiastic launch of Scientology in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction.

For now, though, I’d just like to draw attention to the degree that rational philosophical enquiry was the meat and drink of the social side of SF. Lot’s a SF writers and critics bleat on about how it’s all about characters, but this story feels more like the opening salvo of a kind of high school level philosophical debate. I can almost imagine the ‘Tips for Teachers’ that appear at the bottom of the last page: ‘Ask the class to discuss what evidence they have for (a) that the moon is a planetoid in orbit around the Earth, (b) that the stars a bodies like our sun at a great distance and/or (c) the existence of Australia.’

It’s not a great story, and Wolheim is chiefly interesting for becoming one of the most influential publishers in the history of SF when he established DAW SF in 1965. He clearly understood what made SF special, he knew quality when he saw it, and he could even put it all in order in a workman-like way. But like Lowndes before him just doesn’t seem to have had the unique circumstances or insight that make a story really come alive.

Themes: skepticism, folksy wisdom, geezers, the back-shed genius, Forteanism, phatic fandom.

* Top image: I've shamelessly swiped it from Frederick Pohl's The Way the Future Blogs. It shows the Futurians at Pohl's apartment in 1938. You can read more about it here.

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