In the past week, observers have made much about the 2015 Hugo Award nominees. A slate advocated for by a predominantly small, conservative group of fans swept many categories, most of whom have raised fears that modern science fiction has drifted too far away from its traditional roots. Already, many have written about the political and economic motivations of this year’s nominators and the structural weaknesses of the award itself, which I won't add to here. Rather, I’d like to take a look at some of the genre's own history in attempting to define itself.
Defining science fiction is a difficult proposition: there are many books on the subject, and if you speak with any number of fans, you’ll likely come up with many different opinions about what makes up “science fiction” and what does not. As we’ve seen in this column, the genre has undergone many changes over the course of its history, a trend which isn't likely to change.
One stark example of this change was John W. Campbell Jr.’s rein at Astounding Science Fiction: Adam Roberts describes the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction in his History of Science Fiction as “that period when the genre was dominated by the sorts of stories that appeared in Campbell’s Astounding from the late 1930s into the 1950s.” The sorts of stories Campbell selected for his publication have had an inordinate effect on the stories which followed: they were notable for a new emphasis on realistic sciences, but also, as Avery Rodgers describes in A Requiem for Astounding, “[Campbell] never lost sight of the importance of the story. The primary purpose of a science-fiction magazine, after all, is to provide entertainment—not sugar coated science lessons nor exercises in literary brilliance. Although reasonably sound science and writing skill are essential to a good science fiction story, these elements standing alone do not make a memorable or classic science fiction story.” This is an attitude that has persisted within genre literature and has become the sole defining feature of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
While an oft-repeated statement has the tendency to become truth, Campbell’s vision for science fiction was hardly the only editorial stance out there. Fan groups such as the Futurians embodied a radically different political viewpoint from that of Campbell’s stable of authors, and other editors, such as H.L. Gold of Galaxy Science Fiction. Notably, Gold pushed against the “gee-wiz” pulp stories that had come earlier, and focused on other concerns beyond mere entertainment. According to James Gunn in Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years, Gold forged a magazine in which “social science fiction found its true home. Gold wanted stories not about scientists and engineers, but about the ordinary people who were most affected by scientific and technological change.” The emphasis of science fiction shifted from the scientific culture to society itself.
While editors such as Campbell and his stable of authors firmly established one “mode” of science fiction and set audience expectations accordingly, other genre authors were beginning to struggle within its confines. By the mid-1960s, a new movement began to emerge: The New Wave.
The characteristics that define “New Wave” fiction began to appear at almost the same time as those of the Golden Age. David G. Hartwell noted in his book Age of Wonder that anthologist and editor Judith Merrill had pushed for higher quality writing and stories from as early as the 1940s, and continued to experiment and push boundaries in her Year’s Best SF anthology series from 1955-1965. In particular, she looked outside of the typical genre magazines and authors to search for stories to “blur and ultimately obliterate the distinctions between science fiction and the rest of contemporary literature, to bring science fiction back into the mainstream.”
The New Wave is generally described as a loose movement which pushed against the genre conventions of the 1950s spearheaded by editors such as Campbell at Astounding. Its emergence came from several groups of writers: from writers in New Horizons, a long-running science-fiction fanzine and magazine, from authors at the Milford Writer’s Workshop, and another group of authors involved in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies. Collectively, the authors involved in each project engaged in highly innovative practices that continually challenged the assumptions of what was termed “science fiction.”
According to Hartwell, the movement was “the first significant challenge” to Gernsback and Campbell’s line of fiction. Yet, it’s misleading to think that all of science fiction conformed exactly to the vision of what Gernsback and Campbell were publishing throughout this time: One notable example is Olaf Stapledon, who had published radically different stories well into the 1940s and 1950s. Rather, the Campbell and Gernsback modes of science fiction merely dominated what was publishable and sellable at this point, but didn’t entirely account for the entire genre.
By the 1960s, the desire for new works began to push against the dominant forms of science fiction, and authors were looking to come up with new, innovative ways of both imagining the future. Notably, J.G. Ballard railed against the current state of science fiction in an essay published in 1962:
Science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, galactic wars and the overlap of these ideas that spreads across the martins of nine-tenths of magazine s-f. Great writer though he was, I’m convinced H.G. Wells has had a disastrous influence on the subsequent course of science fiction…similarly, I think, science fiction must jettison its present narrative forms and plots.
These were extremely strong words against science fiction’s established tropes, and quickly, there was considerable heated debate over the injection of a new style of fiction. John J. Pierce, in the inaugural issue of a fanzine called Renaissance, defended the traditional forms of science fiction in his initial editorial:
Our point of view is that romanticist principles of storytelling, the vision of science and the sense of wonder have traditionally been and should continue to be the basis of legitimate science fiction. We are opposed to the anti-science fiction of the 'New Thing,' with its emphasis on anti-heroes, plotless disaster stories, the condemnation of science and intelligence as fundamentally evil or useless and its aura of cynicism, cruelty and disgust.
Magazines such as New World and authors such as Ballard helped to lead the charge by bringing in new styles and attitudes to the genre, which spread to the U.S. through interested readers, authors and editors, and while the New Wave is only considered to have lasted for a handful of years, the movement has maintained a lasting influence in genre literature. Brooks Landon, in his examination of the genre, Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, noted that the New Wave was influential as a whole to the health of science fiction: the new attitudes "resulted in huge changes in the relationship of SF to mainstream writing, its engagement with cultural issues, its attitude towards science and technology, its treatment of sex, and its growing concern with the 'soft' sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. SF reflected the cultural turbulence and controversy of the 1960s, and what certainly felt like a revolution then still seems to mark a sea change in the genre."
Indeed, examining genre history and looking at the arguments against the New Wave, it’s easy to forget that like the Golden Age–style stories edited by Campbell, the movement never replaced its predecessors: these stories continued to find homes in places such as John W. Campbell Jr.’s Analog Science Fiction and Fact, (the new name for Astounding Science Fiction), and make their way onto bookshelves. One notable example of this is the recipients of the 1970 and 1971 Hugo Awards for Best Novel. In 1970, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness took the top prize, a novel which fits many of the New Wave conventions. The following year, Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld earned the Best Novel honor. Looking over the nominees for 1970 and after, one can see a mix of novels from both traditions earning the Best Novel prize.
As with any change in just about any culture, concerns arise when the status quo is challenged: this is especially the case in artistic endeavor, which holds great personal meaning and value to those who consume it. With the changes in the science-fiction field came a tendency toward hyperbolic rhetoric that proclaimed science fiction as an institution, stating that its identify was threatened, even as the “traditional” forms of sci-fi continued to be published. With a new generation of authors producing new traditions, tropes, and modes of their own, those who were deeply invested in the established forms saw their own work, identities, and careers facing some changes in perception.
Changes to science fiction haven’t stopped with the end of the New Wave: another new generation of authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote their own radical novels throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s. In the following decades, science fiction has seen additional new transformations, incorporating numerous authors outside of traditional publishing and from outside of the United States, and authors who have adopted new literary techniques in the face of new massive and ongoing cultural, technological, and scientific advancements. This year’s Hugo Awards dust up is characterized as a major confrontation over the identity of what constitutes science fiction. These arguments, however, are nothing new: similar things have been said since the 1930s in magazine letter columns, and, undoubtedly, there is still much left to be written in the future about the very same topic. All arguments seem to ignore that favored modes of science fiction aren’t going extinct: there are plenty of comparable works still coming from major publishers and authors, in addition to the explosion of independent publishers and authors facilitated by the introduction of print-on-demand and e-book publishers.
The science-fiction genre is not likely to lose its propensity for change. As it continues to thrive, science fiction will evolve and grapple with new innovations and reader habits, much like the technological and scientific themes which dominate it so heavily. While slates of authors and works from one ideological faction might dominate one year, history shows that any attempt to lay claim on the genre’s identify are reactionary at best, and are unable to halt any form of progress and change in the genre. More importantly, however—to echo Judith Merrill—nobody had defined science fiction’s identify from the start, and it’s impossible to point to any one mode of science fiction as the “true” incarnation of the genre since then.