Now, my favorite explanation for why it is that science fiction and fantasy went bad can be summed up into just one word: Commies.
It’s especially hilarious because… it actually no kidding totally for real happened. But don’t take my word for it. Heck, go read Mutation or Death yourself. Even better, go read the completely off the wall letters that got written in to Planet Stories back in the day… and then ponder the implications of how it was that the premises of those complaints would culminate directly into the original Star Trek television series. (Cue Twilight Zone music…!)
You can’t say this in mixed company, of course. And talking about this will persuade no one of any of it. It’s just too danged crazy for people to be able to admit.
I’ll tell you what works though. You can try it yourself and then let me know what happens. Fair warning… it takes a lot of time. And it helps a great deal if you can engage people off the internet and in meatspace.
Find someone that is into science fiction and fantasy and ask them who they like to read and what they like best. Listen to them. Then ask them what they least like about the big fantasy novels of our day. If they read a lot, they will have several examples of fantasy epics that failed to go anywhere or that otherwise insulted the readers with their patently unepic conclusions.
(Note: The problems of contemporary fantasy are immediately obvious, even to non-ideologues and non-connoisseurs. What isn’t obvious to most people is that things were ever substantially different.)
At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.
(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)
A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.
I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.
Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.
Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.
There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.
But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.
What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.
Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.
That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.
Ask them to explain justwhat the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.
Ask them why this matters.
Ask them why something so seemingly insignificant and innocuous as adventure stories would be worth explicitly being erased from history and the collective conscious.
And listen to them.
The funny thing here is that any theory they might be inclined to offer up to explain all this is going to be anything but milder than what guys like me on the internet going to say at this point. Normal people are exasperated when they are confronted by this sort of thing, no different from how fans of the recent superhero movies react when told that you can’t get an Iron Man comic book right now starring insanely popular Tony Stark. Oh, it comes out in fits and starts. There’s all kinds of rationalizations that people will leap to before they finally give them up. But it all comes down to this: something happened to cause the science fiction and fantasy canon to just plain evaporate. A whole bunch of somethings, maybe. And there’s just no good justification for it.
Can you imagine large quantities of metal fans being unable to direct newcomers to the most significant reference points of their genre? I can’t. I can’t begin to imagine what sort of effort it would take to effect such a thing. But that’s exactly what’s happened in science fiction and fantasy.
Likewise, Jazz musicians don’t dismiss Louis Armstrong out of hand. Can you imagine trying to explain the origins and development of Bebop and The Cool while arbitrarily erasing every major jazz artist from before 1940? You can’t do it. But that’s exactly what happens when hack literary critics jump from the twin pillars of Verne and Wells and then directly on to the supposed “golden age” of exemplified by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. There’s a decades-sized hole where the real golden age was!
Over at Quillette there is a story on the development of Creative Writing programs and degrees and workshops and so forth that I think sheds some light on how this transition seeped into and ultimately crippled the field of science fiction and fantasy. Check it out:
Creative Writing was a product of the ‘progressive’ educational movement in the late 1920s, which emphasised self-expression rather than tradition, formal discipline, or the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge or skills.
It’s weird to hear someone just come out and say it, but it’s a truism, really: progressives are necessarily in revolt against tradition. But this bit about self expression over discipline and mastery here… it’s happening in the twenties and not during the cultural revolution of the sixties. Note that pulp was protected from these people as being too low brow and too immediately accessible to large numbers of people that just want to read for fun. As such, authors could develop their skills and reference real myth, real history, real science, and real literature as much as they liked without being bothered by some dipstick that would push them to instead do some sort of hippy dippy deep dive into themselves.
Pulp writers were the beneficiaries of a legitimate culture with inconceivably vast assets. Contemporary writers are insular and inward-facing. How do you transition from one to the other…? Well, progressives can do a lot of damage just by sneering a lot and pretending to have their monocles pop off. But for this stuff to really metastatize, they needed to be able to propagate their methods within the higher education system:
Institutional writing programs spread slowly at first. In 1975, there were 52 Creative Writing programs in American universities. But by 1984 there were 150 postgraduate degree programs (MA, MFA, or PhD) in the United States; by 2004, 350 (with a further 370 offering only undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing). As of 2010, there were as many as 1,269 degree-granting programs in America alone. This explosive growth has not necessarily encouraged a diverse literary output, as is obvious to anyone who attempts to read one of the annual Creative Writing anthologies (The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Poetry, The Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, etc.) which collect typical, apparently exemplary, samples of what these programs produce. The fundamentally uniform quality of contemporary American literature as represented in these anthologies is startling.
Contrast the astonishing regional and stylistic and ideological diversity among the pulp authors with the stultifying homogeneity of stories following the ascendancy of Creative Writing Inc. It’s not normal. It’s not natural. It’s a disaster.
But note how the ax is laid to the root in this wasteland:
A competing (or complementary) influence is popular culture. Contemporary American literature recognises no established ‘canon’: the reader’s knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible (for example) will not be taken for granted. On the other hand, readers are assumed to be intimately familiar with the same films, television programs, and pop songs as the writer.
The obliteration of canon goes far beyond the key reference points of fantasy and science fiction. It goes deeper… down to the level of broader Western canon. Ironically, pulp authors are necessarily and fundamentally more literate than anyone within the Creative Writing school.
In contemporary American literature, self-expression takes precedence over invention. A writer’s thoughts, memories, and experience will form the main bank of material for poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike. Invented narratives and characters are associated with scripts for television and film; whereas short stories and novels must have a firm basis in historical research or recent journalism, or else must be rooted in personal experience.
And that is how we got “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love.” And why pulp writers from Burroughs to Brackett could so effortlessly invent, create, thrill, and induce wonder. This is where that smarmy, unctuous personal tone comes from… as opposed to the many and varied writing styles that are intended to actually be read by normal people. For fun.
The people that imbibe the stuff in these programs and workshops…? Everything they say is uniformly stupid and detached from reality. This is where the patronizing remarks about Lovecraft being a poor wordsmith hail from. This is where losers are taught to make insipid remarks about people having “workmanlike prose.” It’s all voiced by people that are merely dabbling in writing… and that have been programmed to neither be fluent in nor to recognize the canonical figures that wield a broad and ongoing influence over the field.
No wonder they can’t create. And no wonder the pulp era is the revelation that it is.
h/t to Nathan Housley for providing the link to this article over on Google+.
Also: you can buy my survey of some of the most influential books in fantasy and science fiction here.