Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Eras of sci-fi

Things are developing so rapidly in the pulp revolution paradigm that it's often difficult to keep track of what's going on where and what it all means.  My own perspective is a little bit unusual; I'm maybe just a few years older than Jeffro and Daddy Warpig (or maybe I just had different exposure to different sources) so I didn't really perceive the "Appendix N generation gap" the same way that they did.  When I was in junior high in the mid-80s, my friends and I were all pretty familiar with Appendix N sources, or at least many of them, and we read stuff like Lovecraft, Burroughs, Howard, Moorcock, etc. and assumed that everyone else who played D&D—and for that matter, everyone else who read fantasy—did so too.

But although my experience may have "straddled" the generation gap, so to speak, that doesn't mean that I had a lot of context about what was going on; it just means that I know what was on the shelves of my public library and the bookstores that I went to in junior high and high school.  I remember when guys like Eddings and Brooks kinda took over, but I also know that even as they did so, the shelves had a lot of space dedicated to Burroughs, to Robert Adams, to John Norman, etc.  I remember seeing issues of Heavy Metal swirling around in fandom—although they were notably less mainstream, and often had a touch of verboten soft-core porn vibe about them (they were behind the counters and had covers that prevented "innocent eyes" from knowing what they were really all about), at least as we perceived them.  I remember the Bakshi stuff, like Wizards (although I never watched it all the way through) and I had the old official AD&D coloring book, illustrated by comix-artist and all-around counter-culture van art and tattoo guy Greg Irons.

Of course, although this late 60s and early 70s van art Heavy Metal view of fantasy, which in some ways was a revival of the pulp aesthetic, in other ways was very different than the pulp aesthetic.  So, I think maybe it's time that I try to make sense of the various "phases" or movements of fantasy and science fiction as they evolved over time, and as they've been retroactively labeled by the pulp revolutionists.  Mostly, of course, so I can offer my own commentary on how much I do or don't like those particular movements but also just so I can make an effort to get my arms around all of the stuff that's flying around.  No doubt this will continue to evolve as more analytic and critical discussion from the pulp revolution guys continues to come out.

Proto and Early Fantasy and Science Fiction:  In the mid-19th century, writers like George MacDonald and William Morris wrote what were essentially the first fantasy novels, although they were essentially trying to recreate, in some ways, a former genre, the Medieval romance or chansons de geste.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often called the first science fiction novel (a claim that is pretty absurd) but it was really Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that wrote the first science fiction that resembles what we call the genre now in the latter 19th century.  These and some other works set the stage for what are still very different genre foundations—fantasy is based on mythology and medieval romanticism, science fiction is not at all.

And this is significant.  In the next era, the distinctions between science fiction, fantasy and even horror, for that matter, become significantly blurred, reaching their apotheosis in the "weird tale" which was often specifically and on purpose a melange of all three elements.  You'll hear a lot of folks say something that sounds more or less like, "in the beginning, these were all one genre and the split was a deliberate thing."  While there's some truth to that that they did go through a phase where the genre separation didn't exist, and it was deliberately split during the Blue/Campbellian era, it's not true that it was so in the beginning.  The Pulp era was not the beginning for either of the three genres, and it was a deliberate phase change in literature.  What we've seen since the pulps is largely a return to norms that were more familiar.  Not necessarily better, of course.  But more familiar.

Red Speculative Fiction, i.e., the Pulps, i.e. The Gernsbackian Era.  Called by Daddy Warpig the "true" Golden Age of Science Fiction, as opposed to the next era which claims to be the Golden age but which is not.  As I just said above, this era was characterized by, among other things, a wild appreciation of anything that was cool.  A gratuitous awesomeness as a guiding force in what to write.  Fantasy? Mythology? Horror? Advanced scientific ideas?  Yes, all of the above were welcome.  Most importantly, they were stories of action and heroics, though.  Many of the genres that we now recognize today came from this delightfully novel approach—sword & sorcery was basically created by Robert E. Howard (and later added to by Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber and others) when he got tired of all of the historical research needed to create a "proper" historical swashbuckling romance, plus he wanted wizards and monsters if it was fun to include them.  Space opera is the story of big heroes out in space; battling galactic Empires, alien invasions, super-science and more.  The genre here was amazingly popular, actually—writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs were household names.  Even in other modes of presentation, pulp, heroic, swashbuckling "scientifiction" was a big seller, and Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were as big in the funny papers as Prince Valiant was.  Buster Crabbe made a lucrative film career and became another household name (even now, decades after his death and three quarters of a century after his apogee, most people have heard the name) playing pulp and pulpish swashbuckling characters—Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, cowboy heroes, and characters that sound an awful lot like Indiana Jones.  While mostly filmed in the 30s and early 40s, they were broadcast on TV heavily in the 50s and 60s... keeping a pulp aesthetic alive long after it wasn't really being published as much anymore.

This is some of my favorite writing of all time.  If you aren't already pretty familiar with it, then I suggest you pick up some Edgar Rice Burroughs (A Princess of Mars is probably the best place to start, but you also can't go wrong with Tarzan of the Apes—which, once you get past the initial novel, introduces a ton of surprising science fiction and fantasy elements as commonplace occurrences), some E. E. Smith Lensman stories, and a couple of Abraham Merritt novels.  Almost certainly once you do that, you'll want to read more.

Full disclosure alert: Edgar Rice Burroughs is my second favorite author of all time, and I've read almost everything he's written, most of it multiple times.  I dust off the best works every two or three years and re-read them, and try to find some other work, either a stand-alone, or one very late in one of his series (did you know that there are twenty four Tarzan novels, and most of them are entirely stand-alone?) that I haven't gotten around to yet.

Blue Sci-Fi, i.e. Campbellian Science Fiction, i.e. "Men With Screwdrivers."  This is usually called the "Golden Age of Science Fiction" and is heavily shaped by the editorial hand of John Campbell (hence the label Campbellian.)  In recent debates, it's been suggested that this should instead be called the Silver Age of science fiction, in ways that you'll see below.  It is synonymous with "Hard SF", at least to some degree, and this era—mostly the 40s and 50s—featured the claim that science fiction was only good science fiction if some scientific element was key to the resolution of the plot (according to numerous science fiction authorship books that I've read) and gradually developed a contempt towards the more out there elements of the pulp era.  Perhaps as an unanticipated side-effect, masculine values and heroic, masculine characters started gradually to fade from prominence and nerdy, scientific, nebbish folks prevailed (Mary Sues for the often bitter authors themselves.  Seriously; read Isaac Asimov's comments on knights and heroes in the forward to Cosmic Knights sometime.  I'm shocked that they went to press with that forward, when he was basically slamming the entirety of the content that the book offered.)

Of course, this is a spectrum, and there's still some Blue Sci-Fi that's quite good.  Some have called out the "rivalry" between Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and their fans as indicative of the Red(dish) vs. Blue(ish) brands of science fiction, but I personally think that this is pretty silly.  I mean, have you not seen those original Star Trek episodes?  They're absurd.  Space opera doesn't even begin to describe it. Star Trek was never as "hard" as its fans like to pretend that it is, even relative to Star Wars.

I do admit to being a fan of some of this stuff—quite a lot of it, actually.  Real genuine Hard(ish) SF like The Martian is pretty good stuff, and really intriguing to read.  However, the label might—might, I say; I'm willing to be convinced otherwise—be too tainted by smug, holier-than-thou Poindexters who've promoted the view that it's the only legitimate science fiction for a long time.

Another side effect of the rise of Blue SF is that fantasy was basically excised from the SF oeuvre, and became a parallel, separate genre.  An awful lot of folks are very strongly against the mixing of science fiction and fantasy even today as a result of this split.  More recent critics have pointed out that fantastic elements and magic aren't really any less fantastical and magical just because they have pseudo-scientific jargon attached to them, and propose that all but the hardest of hard SF is pretty much indistinguishable from fantasy except by the superficial trappings, rather than because of any inherent or intrinsic element of its own.  This is OK, though—many fans of fantasy and science fiction come to the genres with different expectations.  As writers like Tolkien (my actual favorite author of all time) came to prominence, he did so without any reference whatsoever to the pulp era.  The most recent work that he could maybe be called comparable to were Wagner's Ring and Morrison's oeuvre.  But even then, his true references were the Eddas, Norse and Anglo-Saxon sagas, Beowulf, etc. He wasn't the only writer dabbling in this format, of course.  Poul Anderson wrote some excellent work that has similar roots, to name at least one other writer of note, but again—he wrote without reference of any kind to the pulp era.

More side effects?  Curiously, pulp-like stories and characters thrived, except now in a new medium—comic books!  Of course, until the 80s at least, this meant that they were relegated to a true ghetto of the literary world from a critical and respect standpoint, especially when the Comics Code was implemented.  But comics thrived telling stories and creating characters that would have been at home in the pulps, and gradually, they had their own maturation (so to speak) into an entertainment form that was meant for adults as well.

Last but hardly least, sales plummeted.  If you look on Infogalactic, which I believe mirrors what Wikipedia says about it, it suggests that possibly this was merely the contraction of a bubble market.  Don't believe it.  As the actual space race was taking shape, we're to believe that science fiction shrank to a fraction of its former size as a genre?  No, it happened because science fiction largely forgot how to be fun and appeal to normal people, is my own pet theory.  This is also backed up by the idea that these same folks who said science fiction was a small niche market scoffed at the notion of Star Wars and were completely unprepared for what happened when space opera was once again put on the table as a viable genre.  Lots of science fiction followed, most of it more Red than not, and there was a flourishing of the genre for years.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

New Wave Science Fiction, i.e. "Purple" Science Fiction.  This was in some ways a reaction against the increasingly rigid, narrowing of the genre that the Blue SF wave created.  Embracing "soft SF" it also became consciously literary, political, counter-culture, etc.  In a way, this mimicked some of the old pulp tradition, but... well, not really.  Or rather, on the fantasy side of the house, this became a second pulpish wave, with works by Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, etc. again blurring the lines between science fiction and fantasy, deliberately this time, in an attempt to do something different.  It's curious that this is the milieu in which Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons and as Jeffro has pointed out repeatedly, it was a lot more wild and woolly than those raised on extruded fantasy product are likely to understand without sampling more of it.

Ultimately, although it had an impact on the development of the genre, it was doomed to fail for the same reasons that Blue SF failed—even though superficially they didn't resemble each other very much, both were just absolutely enthralled with a kind of vanity; a stroking of broken, dysfunctional self-esteem by the writers, who were constantly looking for some kind of respectability and ability to set themselves up above the rest of the proles.  New Wave very consciously adopted and propagated cultural Marxism and other nihilistic attitudes that made its implosion inevitable.  Heavily associated with the "van art and psychedelic drugs and free sex" counter culture made it something that was never really going to catch on with the mainstream other than as a novelty.  And the smug, "artistic", literary approach (a subset of cultural Marxist "anti-art" in my opinion) ensured that it could only ever achieve a minor kind of success—because most people just simply aren't into that.

One curious aside, though, is that as the New Wave broke down the Blue SF gate-keepers defenses, a lot of older pulp came back into print during this age.  Except now, with much cooler art by guys like Frank Frazetta.  Burroughs was reprinted in the 60s and 70s and on into the 80s.  Conan was "rediscovered" and reprinted. Even "lesser" pulp writers like Otis Adelbert Kline went back into print. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series deliberately dug out lost classics (more of fantasy than of science fiction, but still—recall that during the pulp age and to a lesser extent in the pulp echo of the New Wave, the two genres were deliberately blended.)

While this was happening in science fiction, Tolkien's work suddenly became hugely mainstream here too.  It had been in print for some time (since the mid-50s, if I recall my original publication dates) but in the late 60s, Tolkien reached some kind of critical mass and went nuclear.  So much so that he almost single-handedly defined fantasy for more than a generation.  Sure, there were folks who fought against the blatant "Tolkienization" of the genre, and some of them I've mentioned here—some New Wave authors, Heavy Metal, Ralph Bakshi, the whole counter-culture van art morons, etc.  But the march of "progress" was inevitable, and demand for "more Tolkien" eventually overcame any other consideration.  By the time Eddings and Brooks were published, if not before, fantasy had evolved into extruded fantasy product—losing all of the genius of Tolkien, but (very superficially) resembling him while inching closer and closer to the pink sludge that we have way too much of now.

And science fiction (explicitly excluding fantasy, at this point) was splintering all kinds of ways.  The massive and unexpected success of the Star Wars franchise (although it shouldn't have been so unexpected, if the field hadn't been taken over by a bunch of idiots with a OneTrueWayism that is still hard to believe—even though I actually witnessed it) sparked an explosion of copycat space opera, but much of it was starting to get out of the written word.  TV shows like Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, the Flash Gordon cartoon show that I referenced last week, and more popped up all over the place.  The new market for video games heavily featured a lot of science fiction-themed works—this is still today perhaps the most fertile ground for truly innovative science fiction concepts to pop up.  In the wake of New Wave, stuff like cyberpunk flourished briefly—and then jumped into movies like Blade Runner or the high concept of Terminator.  Movies like Alien or Predator were huge hits.  Even Total Recall became a cult classic.

It's hard to even label this diversity in science fiction, but curiously—written science fiction was slowly fading during this era, or at least it seems to have to my notice.  It never disappeared, and contains plenty of diversity still, but by and large, the "science fiction" shelves at the library and bookstore seemed to have more older sci-fi and newer fantasy than new science fiction.

I admit that here, I'm speculating based on my own anecdotal experience, and am willing to be corrected by anyone who has any data that suggests otherwise.  I became convinced that fantasy was the genre of the written word, since movies based on it were universally cheesy and stupid, while science fiction became a genre of film—since written sci-fi that I stumbled across was either badly Blue Era dregs or stumbling into the upcoming pink generation.  Is this just my perception based on what I happened to watch and read?  Maybe.  But I happened to watch and read a lot.  Any sci-fi that I read that was good was already old.  And fantasy movies were the Barbarian Brothers, Beastmaster and Willow—poor copies of the Conan movie, which let's face it: was kind of over-rated itself. 

Pink Sci-fi, i.e. Social Justice Sci-Fi, i.e. Romance Novels in Science Fiction Drag.  And this is where we are today.  The gains of the 80s have largely been shunted out of the published world entirely, and if you want to find good science fiction OR fantasy either one, you need to either trawl through massive backlogs of self-published Kindle fiction, or buy a video game like Destiny or Far Cry or whatever, or look to the occasional good film or TV show to get your kicks.  It's hard to find decent published sci-fi (on either side of the divide, or works that don't care about the distinction between science fiction and fantasy and gleefully merge them) because the publishing houses, the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and every other "respectable" avenue for publication was caught in the counter-attack of the cultural Marxists.

As these labels were originally defined, there was a Blue vs. Pink divide; manly science fiction vs. girly romance novels that happen to feature werewolves or vampires or cyborgs instead of just regular people which gave them fantasy or science fiction trappings.  Diversity quotas and anti-white push-back took over the genre.  And, of course, sales continue to plummet—to the point where "big name" publishers like Tor will likely be out of business within a decade.  When you add to this Jeffro's Appendix N journey, the rediscovery of works that people just a couple of years younger than me apparently never read, and the influence of video games and anime and other venues of product that don't care what the publishing houses are doing, we get a strange diversity and conflict in the genre.

The Pulp revolution is another layer on top of this; a rediscovery of some of the old pulp titles, and—kinda like the OSR in the gaming community—a conscious effort to go back to the pulps as perhaps a starting point, but then do something unique from that starting point, pretending like all of the subsequent history of the genre didn't actually happen after all.  What would sci-fi have looked like if the pinks never took over at all?  What if New Wave never happened?  What if bitter, ugly, dysfunctional narcissists, perverts and other assorted weirdos like Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke had never risen to prominence and the genre just kept on trucking from a pulp base?

Luckily, the counter to the pinks is the ease of self-published, the Kindle and other ebook avenues, etc.  Sure, Amazon is pretty much an SJW converged company, so it may not be there forever if the culture war in this particular theater heats up enough that Amazon decides to eliminate the platform for neo-Blue or neo-Red authors.  But until that happens, you can actually ignore the pink slime entirely and have more to read than you could ever have imagined twenty years ago.

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