Me and Science Fiction
By Eleanor Arnason
19 November 2012
Since this is my first essay for Strange Horizons, I thought I'd begin with a history of my relationship to science fiction.
I fell in love with the science fiction TV show Captain Video sometime in the early 1950s. From there I went on to other SF shows—Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, then SF books and magazines. Of course I watched Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, though these came later.
What was the appeal of science fiction? I was growing up in the white-bread, suburban 1950s, with the threat of nuclear war and the reality of the McCarthyite witch hunts. (In point of fact, I grew up in a city. But it wasn't a big city, and the suburban dream pervaded American society.) Other people may imagine the 1950s as Happy Days. I remember waking at night to the sound of sirens—always fire engines, as it turned out—and thinking, "Those are the air raid sirens. This is The War." And I remember the adults around me being afraid and angry in response to Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The red-baiters really did scare people and wreck people's lives.
To me, living in the strange postwar world of suburban consumerism, science fiction was realistic. Official life—what I saw on TV—was domestic and comfortable. Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. But the same world contained fallout shelters and witch hunters. It was an eerie combination.
By contrast, the science fiction magazines were full of stories about radioactive wastelands and police states; mutants, both good and bad; and the hope of space. It gave me a world I recognized, and it gave me hope. It had a huge, important message: change is possible and inevitable. We would not be stuck in the 1950s forever. A second message—important in an era of rapid technological and social transformation—was the importance of technology and science.
I'm not claiming that I did an analysis of why I loved science fiction and fantasy back then. I had always loved fairy tales and myths, the Oz books, and Lewis Carroll. Science fiction and fantasy (which did not exist as a separate genre) seemed like a continuation of my love of childhood fantastic fare.
I read the Golden Age stories of the 1930s and '40s in early anthologies, then read the 1950s magazine stories as they came out. There was a period in the 1960s when I was able to find very little SF. The number of SF magazines had sharply decreased. I remember locating a few Andre Norton paperback novels at the bottom of a rack of something else: romances or Westerns. That was it for book-length SF.
This was in the early 1960s. The New Wave emerged later, and—as far as I can remember—I was reading it as it came out, not in New Worlds, but in anthologies such as Judith Merril's England Swings SF. In addition, I read the American version of New Wave (Delany, Zelazny, Ellison, et al) in American magazines.
This is Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted in Wikipedia:
Without in the least dismissing or belittling earlier writers and work, I think it is fair to say that science fiction changed around 1960, and that the change tended toward an increase in the number of writers and readers, the breadth of subject, the depth of treatment, the sophistication of language and technique, and the political and literary consciousness of the writing. The sixties in science fiction were an exciting period for both established and new writers and readers. All the doors seemed to be opening.
We need to remember the huge social movements of the time: Civil Rights, the American antiwar movement, the strikes and revolutions worldwide in 1968. All the world's doors were opening—or at least being tugged and hammered on. Art always reflects its place and age. The energy Le Guin talks about filled American society and much of the world. It was also a period of fear, since the American status quo was defending itself violently. We can see something similar now, with the police treatment of the Occupy movement. But the fear then seemed energizing, rather than the dull horror of the 1950s or our present era.
In the later 1960s I discovered Star Trek and was a devoted fan until the third season, when control of the series was taken away from Gene Roddenberry. I turned off the TV midway through the first show, the truly awful "Spock's Brain," and never went back. While I was watching Star Trek, I wrote scripts for the show with my friend Ruth Berman. Ruth turned one of the scripts into a short story, which was published in Star Trek: The New Voyages in 1976.
Star Trek famously brought large numbers of women into fandom; and starting in the late 1960s, significant numbers of women writers began to appear. Theodore Sturgeon said that all the best new writers of the 1970s were women, except for James Tiptree, Jr. ("Tiptree," of course, turned out to be a pen name for Alice Sheldon.)
I sold my first science fiction story in 1972 to one of the later versions of New Worlds. It came out in 1973, followed by another story sold to New Worlds and three stories sold to Damon Knight's original anthology Orbit. I suspect all the stories could be called "New Wave." Beyond question they could be called feminist. My mother's family was feminist, and I had been raised with the ideas. But they were made real to me by the 1960s and the second wave of feminism. Sometime in the late 1960s, I spent a solid six months feeling angry all the time, as I thought through the experience of being a woman in the US and the world.
Through the 1970s, science fiction explained the world to me: the blandness and horror of the 1950s, the hope of the 1960s, the explosion of feminism in the 1970s. The 1980s was famously the decade of Cyberpunk, a largely male phenomenon. The SF of the '80s that interested me was eco-feminism: Always Coming Home, The Door into Ocean, Pennterra. These are all large, pastoral novels about the environment and women, and they stand in pretty sharp contrast to the tough, jittery, noir, near-future, urban worlds of Cyberpunk fiction. I wrote my own version of eco-feminism in A Woman of the Iron People, published in 1991 but written over a period of 13 years.
Histories of science fiction tend to fall into neat ten-year sections: the Campbell-Astounding era of the 1940s, the Galaxy and F&SF era of the 1950s, New Wave in the 1960s, women in the 1970s, and Cyberpunk (and eco-feminism) in the 1980s. I'm reasonably happy with these divisions, but I'm not sure what comes after 1990. The New Space Opera, maybe. The New Hard SF. The New Weird. Steampunk. Slipstream. Interstitial SF. Maybe the field has expanded so much that it cannot be neatly sliced and labeled.
A couple of essays I have read recently argue that SF has become nostalgic and backward looking, feeding off its own past. The number of movements with "new" in their names does suggest nostalgia (though the earlier New Wave—a term borrowed from French cinema—was not at all nostalgic). The same essays argue that the borders of science fiction have become too permeable. It borrows too much from other genres, including fantasy and "literary" fiction. The names of other contemporary movements—"Slipstream" and "Interstitial"—suggest this may be true.
Paul Kincaid suggests that SF may have exhausted its current themes and formats and may need to renew itself, which it has done every decade or so. I don't know if Kincaid is right. The size of the field and the number of new movements make it hard for me to keep track of what's happening. There may be all kinds of exciting fiction that I have not encountered.
One of the appeals of SF, when I first discovered it, was its lack of intellectual respectability. The intellectual culture of the 1950s was under strong pressure from the red-baiters and witch hunters, and it responded by becoming careful. Comics, detective stories, Mad Magazine, and so on remained trashy and reckless. Science fiction constantly dealt with social and political issues—as satire, cautionary tales, and tales of survival and hope. It was attacked for being mindless, escapist junk, but not (as I remember) for being subversive and true. It was kid stuff and not about the real world. This protected it from the full attention of the witch hunters. Congress did investigate comic books, and EC Comics was put out of business. Still (as I remember) the carrying-on about "sick" and "disturbing" kid culture wasn't as bad as the anti-red witch hunts.
I shouldn't be mourning the fact that science fiction has moved outside its juvenile ghetto. But I do long for that old energy and anger and vision; and it would be nice to have something genuinely new. I'm not sure what it would be. Maybe we should wait and see.