Monday, 9 July 2007

Star Fourteen - Holocausts, Rockets and MacDonalds. Science Fiction from The Eisenhower Era.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"This one wasn't the last war or a war to end war. They called it The War for the American Dream. General Carpenter struck that note and sounded it constantly.

There are fighting generals (vital to an army), political generals (vital to an administration), and public relations generals (vital to a war). General Carpenter was a master of public relations. Forthright and four-square, he had ideals as high and understandable as the mottoes on money. In the mind of America he was the army, the administration, the nation's sword and stout right arm. His ideal was the American Dream." — from Disappearing Act by Alfred Bester.

First published in 1966 (my yellowing, poorly-bound, paperback copy dates from 1968 with no later reprints.), Star Fourteen is 238 pages of science fiction history. It is the last publication in Ballantine Books' Star Stories anthology series, all edited by Frederick Pohl. Between these pages is clamped the last gasp of the first age of American SF, their dreams rendered in steel, Bakelite and uranium. Soon afterwards, the New Wave of Science Fiction came along and the genre was swallowed by the counter-culture, who promptly spat it out bound in primary colours peppered with the words "grok" and "man". This unassuming pale blue paperback is everything I love in Science Fiction and upon picking it up this morning I found the vehicle to discuss something I've been considering for a while, the later period of The Golden Age of Science Fiction.

To begin with let's discuss SF's history — in the years before the war, Science Fiction was beginning to take off as a genre of pulp-fiction magazines. Magazines stocked side by side with westerns and mysteries on news-agents shelves. This format was responsible for the form in which SF became popular, and was the primary control of its structure for the next half-century. Previously there had been novels by Verne, Mary Shelley, Zamyatin and Wells that used the "what-if" form to write fiction, but the trappings, style and structure people associate with SF comes from a tradition that originated in these magazines. Between 1926 - when the first SF magazine was launched by Hugo Guernsback - and 1950, when Horace Gold's Galaxy took over from Astounding as the Mecca for science fiction, SF underwent a dizzying progression. In the 20's the simplicity of these magazines was almost laughable, a world of boys-own adventures with bug-eyed aliens. This childishness underwent a metamorphosis with the arrival of John W. Campbell's classic era of hard science fiction at Astounding Stories Of Super Science (hereafter referred to as Astounding). A venue where leaky spaceships, complex astronomy and sound mathematics were as important as realistic female characterisation was irrelevant.

In the era of Astounding, Science Fiction was a standard-bearer of American superiority, it was to literature what Jazz and Hollywood were to music and theatre - a simpler, harder, art form that moved rapidly, but ran in a direction where no-one previously had noticed there was a direction at all. This magazine based form led the writers - almost all of whom progressed through the genre and a significant proportion of whom were based in New York City - to develop SF into two main literary forms, the serial and the concept-driven short story. The serial allowed a novel sized idea to be developed in parts with massive narrative leaps and a disregard for traditional story structure, so that Asimov's Foundation series or Bradbury's Martian Chronicles could leap across thousands of years of history without character development or a real conclusion. In the serial, the only things that mattered were theme and the coherence of each instalment. But the real engine of early SF was the short story, a fast injection of concept, conflict, conclusion that took place in as little as 5 pages but was capable of building and then resolving a whole worldview.

The '50's was the era when SF began to have a major effect on the public consciousness, with classic B-movies from The Blob to This Island Earth breaking through to mass audiences, but as a genre it was still mainly confined to these small run magazines, and a sparse number of publishers. The Eisenhower era was a period of massive growth, accompanied by the political turmoil of the Cold War. Science fiction — with the success of the Manhattan Project giving the physicals sciences a mystique and tangible influence — was able to envision really radically different worlds, but establish them within the realms of possibility. Militarism, politics, far off worlds, nuclear holocaust (an imminent possibility that could only be realised by SF) and even wilder fantasies of science all were within the realms of SF. The conceptual and literary ambition was staggering and one need only read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, or Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery Of Man to realise that these men were artists of the first order.

Enter Star Science Fiction Stories in '52, produced by Ballantine books under the editorship of Frederick Pohl, the first anthology of original short stories. Frederick Pohl (writer, editor, collaborator, agent) is a pivotal and often underrated figure in the history of SF. In the 1950's one of his main contributions to the genre was to act as Science Fiction's first literary agent (best read about in his fascinating autobiography The Way The Future Was), where his connections in the New York scene and general respect in the community allowed him to become the gatekeeper between the biggest magazines (such as Astounding and Galaxy) and the biggest names in SF (Asimov, Clement and Wyndham all passed their first novels through his hands). After publishing Pohl's first novel (The Space Merchants with Cyril Kornbluth) Ian Ballantine offered Pohl editorial control of his proposed Star science fiction series, a publication with a considerably higher pay-per-word rate than the pulps. A conflict-of-interest not to be missed.

"Little Anthony was sitting on the lawn, playing with a rat. He had caught the rat down in the basement - he had made it think that it smelled cheese, the most rich-smelling and crumbly-delicious cheese a rat had ever thought it smelled, and it had come out of its hole, and now Anthony had hold of it with his mind and was making it do tricks.

When the rat saw Bill Soames coming, it tried to run, but Anthony thought at it, and it turned a flip-flop on the grass, and lay trembling, its eyes gleaming in small black terror" — From Jerome Bixby's It's A Good Life.

Frederick Pohl - the newer, grizzled, version.

Star Fourteen is the anthology of previous Star anthologies, the final bookend to this period of science fiction's history. What follows between these covers is a demonstration of the art of writing concept driven short fiction. Intentionally selected for stories that hadn't been re-anthologised, very few of these stories are written by the big names in SF. So, while there are stories by Richard Matheson, Alfred Bester and Arthur Clarke here, the strongest impression from this collection is the wealth of talent amongst the less well known names.

There is Gerald Kersh's Whatever Happened To Corporal Cuckoo? A perfectly constructed story of the downside of immortality. There is William Morrison's Country Doctor, a story of alien veterinary medicine (would the word be Xenonaut for one who explores the insides of aliens?) that is best not described. And, of course, there is Jerome Bixby's It's A Good Life, a tale that has haunted me ever since I read it as a teenager, about a child given godlike powers and the community who are subject to his whims (it was later made as an episode of The Twilight Zone). Out of the fourteen stories included there are no misfires.

The short story in the hands of people who had grown up within this tradition had been honed significantly away from the short story in literary fiction, as typified at the time by the work of Salinger for The New Yorker. It is a common and much-repeated sentiment that 50s SF is stylistically weaker than what would follow in the '60's and '70's, but one only has to read through this anthology to see the holes in this argument. The stories in this anthology run at an average of 15 pages a piece (and with one story as short as 4), but in almost all cases we have a setup, a conflict, a concept and a resolution. This is incredibly spartan story telling, and phenomenal plotting. Through repeat experience and editorial harrying these writers had established tricks for stripping a science concept down to the nuts and bolts and building a narrative out of it. But where in the Astounding age this prophecy aspect was the focus, in the '50's the emphasis was on idea and story, not one of these stories fits the classic engineer's wet dream template that is so often used to deride Golden Age SF: Matheson's story is about peer pressure and drug abuse, Bester's is about military incompetence. In SF there was a very tight market, and a very specific one (very few editors), so each story was a carefully engineered clockwork piece, with the aims of exploring an idea, developing a narrative and expanding the minds of your audience with something extraordinary. There was no space or intention to waste time with sex or emotion, no real interest in choosing exactly the right word, but a fascination with story structure and form that a "people in the city" story of literary fiction couldn't aspire to.

There is much to celebrate in this age of SF, before the Challenger disaster had made space-colonisation less of an imminent possibility, when individual military experience influenced their priorities, and when nuclear power was a source of both optimism and fear. Since The War this whole narrative frontier had opened up, and these three-penny-a-word wordsmiths were racing each other to homestead the new landscape. While Gollancz's SF Masterworks range (in my opinion, the best thing to happen to SF publishing in a decade) have brought a significant number of lost classics from this period back into print, short fiction — the engine-room where these writers learnt their trade and the real soul of the genre — is mostly lost from publication. The modern fan encountering the shorts of this era will come across the anthologies of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, authors who came to the fore in the '40's and never learnt to polish their work the way the generation of the '50's did. These authors are masters, but they were also the focus of the hardest of SF styles. The '50's was an era when Science Fiction was setting the pace for real science and when the short story had a greater value than as a mere testing ground for journeymen writers.

In the decades since we've had SF as another wild-eyed view of the counter culture, SF as computer-action-fantasy in cyberpunk, to the present where many science fiction writers seem to have more experience of creative writing classes than they do within the tradition itself. The one abiding feature of '50's SF was that it felt justified in sacrificing characterisation and emotion in the name of tightness of plot and concept, I find it a great shame that an author like Mike Resznick can now become the most heavily awarded short SF writer in history with story after story of concept free emotionalising. A creative writing course and an understanding of George Lucas and Joss Whedon can teach you to write fiction set in space. Nonetheless, the tradition — the guts and bones of storytelling developed by Campbell, Gold, Weinbaum, Pohl and their brothers — is a creature that must be studied on its own.

So, grab a yellowing paperback and join me in the last century's darkest fantasies, where rich men walk in radiation suits amongst the wreckage of humanity, and an immortal Christ can be eternally reborn among our distant descendants.


Bibliolatrist said...

This sounds great! I need to brush up on my science fiction; I used to read it quite a bit but I've fallen off as of late. Great post here.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

I'm a great defender of SF, at its best it has more scope than any other literature...

unfortunately this one is not easy to get hold of... Go out hunting for a "classic SF" anthology is my suggestion, because this material is well, well worth reading...

The Short Story has never been utilised like it was by early SF.