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The Future Then And Now
The Evolution of Science Fiction
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1983 by Robert J.
All Rights Reserved
Based on the following outline, the Canadian Broadcasting
Robert J. Sawyer (who was then 23 years old)
to write and narrate three hour-long radio documentaries tracing the
development of Science Fiction. The actual programs didn't
really adhere to this outline (I decided to use a thematic,
rather than historical, approach), but I think the outline stands well
on its own as an interesting history of the SF field. The
finished programs aired in
January 1986 as part of CBC's acclaimed Ideas series
under the revised title
"Other Worlds, Other Minds: A Science Fiction Odyssey."
The documentaries were produced by Bernie Lucht, Lorne Tulk
was the audio engineer, and Lister Sinclair introduced the programs.
I have some ideas about Science Fiction that I would like to
share with your listeners. In three one-hour programs, I believe
I can paint an intriguing portrait of the development of this
genre. Specifically, these shows would deal with Science
Fiction's Evolution as a Literary Form in the Twentieth Century
in North America.
Science Fiction for three reasons:
- It is more than just another brand of storytelling. Critic
Samuel R. Delany (one of the people I'd like to interview) makes
a strong case that SF requires a different kind of reading skill
than any other branch of fiction. (Consider the phrase "his
world exploded." It can be interpreted either metaphorically or
literally only in SF. Only the careful application of language
skills normally atrophied in adults allows the SF reader to
tell which meaning is intended.) I define SF as the mainstream
literature of an alternative reality. I'd like to examine the
techniques SF authors have used over the years to draw readers
into their alternative worlds.
- SF owes its existence to Science and, I hope to demonstrate,
Science owes much of its advance to SF. This unique
interdependence makes SF a potent force in our society, even for
those who never read it.
- The field is enjoying immense popularity. SF novels
including Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov,
2010: Odyssey Two by
Arthur C. Clarke, and Friday by
Robert A. Heinlein were runaway bestsellers in 1982. The
highest-grossing films of all time are E.T. and
Star Wars. The public interest is there, making the time
ripe for a critical assessment and a penetrating retrospective.
Evolution because the development of SF is analogous to
the development of a life form, seeking a favourable niche in the
human environment. I feel that the evolutionary model of
punctuated equilibrium accurately accounts for the changes that
have taken place in SF. To my way of thinking, Science Fiction
and Science always hold complimentary positions in the scheme of
things. When Science is popular, SF is frowned upon. When the
soft, sociological sciences are making the greatest strides, SF
turns to hard technology. When scientists are reluctant to
consider the implications of their research, SF provides a
valuable forum for speculation and cautions. Just as in nature,
the status remains quo until an external force
causes an upheaval. With Science and Science Fiction, that force
is always an identifiable historical event. It's in this context
that I would like to trace the growth of the field.
As a Literary Form because SF is literature,
although it wasn't always recognized as such. I'll look at the
changing critical attitudes towards the field and how the
internal pressures of the genre changed it first for the better,
then for the worse. The history of SF is, in miniature, the
history of all creative writing. I'll show what changes took
place in style, quality, and content, and demonstrate why these
changes were inevitable. Our barometer as we examine the periods
of SF's history will be the genre's favourite theme: non-human
In the Twentieth Century because I believe SF is less than
one hundred years old. Some scholars cite the writings of Lucian
of Samosata, Homer's epic poems, and even the Bible as early SF.
Real SF distinct from any other literary genre, including
Fantasy didn't appear until this century. It wasn't until
Science started advancing at a gallop that SF could begin its
In North America because that's where it all happened.
When the SF of other parts of the world is similar to that of our
continent, it's imitation: it was all done here either first or
best. When it's different, it's because of a conscious attempt
to be different.
Canada has produced a large body of
world-class fiction and scholarship in the field. The shows will
examine the work of Canadian authors not merely out of patriotism
but because their work merits it.
Each program will consist of:
- Discussion of the historical context, the relationship
between SF and Science, and the literary development of the
- Supporting voice clips from SF authors and major critics;
- Illustrative readings from key SF works and period criticism
(for contrast and effect, these probably should be read by
someone other than the narrator. If feasible, Canadian actor
Douglas Rain would be an excellent choice. His voice is
universally recognizable as that of HAL the computer in the movie
2001: A Space Odyssey.);
- Archival voice clips to make vivid the historical events that
changed the field (including Armstrong on the Moon, Kennedy's
announcement of the Space Race, and various events from
World War II);
- Atmosphere created with soundtrack music from period SF films
and appropriate sound effects.
I identify five periods in SF's development, to be covered as
Hour One: IN THE BEGINNING
This show will deal with The Burroughsian Period which ran
from January 1901 (the start of a new century full of promise) to
April 1926 (publication of the first SF magazine, Amazing
Stories) and The Amazing Years, April 1926, to
July 1939 (John Campbell's first great issue as editor of
Hour Two: The Golden Age
This second hour will be devoted to The Golden Age, July
1939 to August 1957 (the launch of Sputnik 1).
Hour Three: The Future Is Now
The final program will discuss The Space Race, August 1957
to July 1969 (the first man on the Moon) and The Day of the
Bestseller, July 1969 to date.
3. Synopses of the Periods
The Burroughsian Period (1901 to 1926)
Scientific: The hard sciences, especially physics and
astronomy, made the greatest advances, including Einstein's
Relativity (1905) and Hubble's discovery of other galaxies
(1924). Because of the esoteric nature of these lines of
research, science was unpopular.
Science Fiction: Almost exclusively soft, social
commentary (e.g. A Trip to the Moon by H. G. Wells, 1901)
and adventure (e.g. Under the Moons of Mars by Edgar Rice
Burroughs, 1912). These "different stories" were very popular.
Leading Literary Figure: Edgar Rice Burroughs
(1875-1950), author of 26 swashbuckling yarns, taking their
minimal scientific content from the popular theories and
crackpottery of the day.
Central Publication: The All-Story Magazine,
published by the Frank A. Munsey Corporation.
Like most people of this time, Burroughs had no interest in
science. SF's only goal was to entertain. The pages of
All-Story were peppered with fantastic tales by Burroughs
and a waning H. G. Wells. The portrayal of aliens mirrored the
way North Americans viewed the natives of Africa and South
America: barbarous and uncivilized.
- A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells
- Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback
- JOHN FLINT ROY on Burroughs
- DONALD A. WOLLHEIM on Wells
- ISAAC ASIMOV on defining SF
- BAIRD SEARLES on the origins of SF
- SAMUEL R. DELANY on how SF is read
[notes on the interview subjects are appended]
The Amazing Years (1926 to 1939)
Scientific: Science was now the servant of the people,
producing electric razors, penicillin, and nylon. It was
embraced by the public.
Science Fiction: Soft, cautionary tales, warning about
the implications of new technology (e.g. Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley, 1931). James Hilton parried the Great
Depression with Lost Horizon (1932), about a longing for a
Leading Literary Figure: Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967),
editor of Amazing. He saw SF as a way of turning young
people to scientific careers.
Central Publication: Amazing Stories, the first
The Great Depression hit. Science had to become practical in a
world that could no longer afford luxuries. SF took up the
speculative reigns. The hunger for cheap entertainment caused a
boom in pulp publishing; the abysmal pay rates for authors made
the low quality of the fiction inevitable. Gernsback devised the
first formula for SF writing: 75% adventure sugar-coating 25%
scientific education. Aliens evolved during this period. In the
early years, after a triumphant war, extraterrestrials were seen
as pure good or pure evil (as in E. E. Smith's
Triplanetary). This began to change in 1933 when the
Nazis came to power in Germany. Hitler's rantings made racism
unpopular. One could not talk of superior and inferior beings
without being branded a Nazi. SF reflected this with more mature
stories about searching for understanding between vastly
different intelligences. The classics "Old Faithful" by Raymond
Z. Gallun and "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum (both
1934) are sympathetic portraits of fundamentally alien minds.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Triplanetary by E. E. Smith
- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
The Golden Age (1939 to 1957)
Scientific: Soft, sociological sciences with no
Science Fiction: Stories rigidly extrapolating the
effects of technological progress on society.
Leading Literary Figure: John Wood Campbell, Jr.
(1910-1971), editor of Astounding.
Central Publication: Astounding Stories (still
published as Analog).
Science and morality were divorced during World War II and no one
took custody of the children in Hiroshima. In defense of the
incredible destruction the A-bomb had wrought, scientists
insisted that they were not responsible for the way their
inventions were used. The hard sciences physics and chemistry
faded from public view as their practitioners doggedly refused
to speculate on the long-range implications of their research.
The softer studies, psychology and sociology, saw a renaissance,
with Freud's works gaining popularity in translation and
B. F. Skinner developing his theories of behaviourism.
John Campbell encouraged those who had received a technical
training during the war to turn their hands to writing SF. The
field did a flip-flop, becoming obsessed with hard sciences and
the sociological consequences of their development. Under
Campbell's guidance, the field took the speculative leaps the
scientists refused to take themselves.
SF gained popularity because of its successful prognostication of
the A-bomb. The first anthologies appeared and there were up to
thirty different magazines devoted to the genre available at any
The non-human intelligences of the day weren't aliens: they were
robots. Jack Williamson's classic Humanoids were a direct
response to the atomic bomb: machines with built-in morality.
Isaac Asimov's robot stories were an in-depth investigation of
the implications of three simple postulates, the
Laws of Robotics.
- "Liar!" by Isaac Asimov
- "With Folded Hands . . ." by Jack Williamson
- "The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt
- ISAAC ASIMOV on his stories of this period
- BEN BOVA on Campbell
- STANLEY SCHMIDT on Astounding Stories
- DONALD KINGSBURY on writing for
- PHYLLIS GOTLIEB on her stories of this period
- JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO on A. E. van Vogt
- DR. PETER FITTING on SF criticism
The Space Race (1957 to 1969)
Scientific: Practical technology for the space effort was
the order of the day. It was a grand adventure and science was
popular once again.
Science Fiction: Soft, sociological, shying away from
Leading Literary Figure:
Judith Merril (b. 1923), chief American
proponent of the New Wave in SF.
Central Publication: The anthology
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1967).
The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was a slap in
the face to American technology. John F. Kennedy pledged his
nation to putting a man on the moon before 1970. Suddenly
high-tech science was in vogue again. For the Americans, it was
a matter of national pride. Science Fiction changed its focus to
the soft sciences. The genre suffered greatly in popularity, but
obtained its first real mainstream critical praise.
Judith Merril brought the British New Wave a movement toward
soft, socio-psychological SF with an emphasis on literary values
to North America. The leading anthology editor in the field,
she helped shape a generation of writers. Harlan Ellison's
original anthology Dangerous Visions firmly established
soft, experimental SF as the standard in North America.
Moulded by the Sixties' counter-culture movement, the alien in SF
was replaced by human beings perceived as aliens, as in
Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and
Frank Herbert's Dune (1965).
- Introduction to Dangerous Visions
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- ISAAC ASIMOV on Harlan Ellison
- JUDITH MERRIL on the New Wave
- SAMUEL R. DELANY for the New Wave
- ANDREW WEINER for the New Wave
- DONALD A. WOLLHEIM against the New Wave
The Day of the Bestseller (1969 to date)
Scientific: Soft, unpopular.
Science Fiction: Hard, though with a heavy Fantasy
influence. Extremely popular.
Typical Literary Figure: Barry B. Longyear, the first
person ever to win a Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell award in
the same year. A proponent of writing-by-formula.
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine as edited by
George Scithers, a periodical the very title of which bespeaks
its commercial nature.
As interest in space travel waned, SF waxed. The soft sciences
were again in fashion: psychiatry, nutrition, fitness,
self-actualization. Having an analyst became the new status
symbol. Alvin Toffler warned against Future Shock. Ignorance of
science was bliss. Creationism became popular again.
The popularity of SF in the visual media had a profound effect on
the genre. SF authors who had been content with an elite circle
of readers now wanted the recognition and money that went with
mass appeal. Escapism reigned
supreme. The literary excellence of the 1960s was replaced by a
return to the simpler storytelling of the 1940s. Rather than
developing in new areas, writers turned to the
easy money found in producing sequels
to great works of the past (witness Asimov's Foundation's
Edge and The Robots of Dawn, Clarke's 2010, and
Herbert's God Emperor of Dune and
Heretics of Dune).
Aliens were truly alien: totally
dissimilar to humans. Interstellar commerce and trade replaced
warfare as the force bringing different life forms together. The
message is clear and optimistic: if humans can live with other
intelligences, surely we can find a way to live peacefully
- "Enemy Mine" by Barry B. Longyear
- Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg
- Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (and for contrast
there isn't much a section from Foundation, published
thirty years earlier)
- Ringworld by Larry Niven
- SHAWNA McCARTHY, new editor,
Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine
- STANLEY SCHMIDT on modern SF
- PHYLLIS GOTLIEB on SF: the 80s vs. the 50s
- DONALD KINGSBURY on Astounding / Analog: 1940
- JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO on modern Canadian SF
4. Notes on the Interview Subjects (1983)
ISAAC ASIMOV, Ph.D., is the
foremost living SF author. His books an eclectic selection of
SF and Mysteries, Science and History number close to 300. He
was a protégé of John W. Campbell and now serves as
editorial director of
Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine. His recent bestsellers,
Foundation's Edge and The Robots of Dawn, are at
the forefront of the return to Golden-Age storytelling.
BEN BOVA was John Campbell's successor at Analog.
By purchasing such stories as Frederik Pohl's "The Gold at
Starbow's End" and Joe Haldeman's Forever War series, he
broadened the magazine's scope to include the sociological,
high-extrapolation SF typical of the post-Apollo period.
He has won five best editor Hugo awards. In 1977, he was hired
away from Analog by Omni magazine. He left
Omni in 1982 to pursue full-time writing.
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO is Canada's
only active SF editor. His anthologies in the field include
Friendly Aliens and the definitive Other Canadas.
Related critical works include Blackwood's Books,
Years of Light, and CDN SF&F. A contributor to the
scholarly Science-Fiction Studies (edited at Montreal's
McGill University), Colombo is best known for his popular
collections of Canadiana.
SAMUEL R. DELANY is both a leading SF critic and a major
New Wave author. A frequent contributor to
Science-Fiction Studies, fourteen of his critical essays
were collected as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Berkley, 1977).
DR. PETER FITTING is Professor of Science Fiction at the
University of Toronto. He frequently contributes scholarly
papers to Science-Fiction Studies and is an editorial
consultant for that journal.
RAYMOND Z. GALLUN wrote extensively for both Gernsback's
Amazing and Campbell's Astounding.
The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun was published by Ballantine
in 1978. He is most famous for his "Old Faithful" trilogy of
novellas. A spry 73, he still appears at SF conventions.
PHYLLIS GOTLIEB is Canada's foremost SF author. Her
novels include Sunburst, O Master Caliban,
A Judgment of Dragons, and Emperor, Swords,
Pentacles. She is also a widely-acclaimed poet.
DONALD KINGSBURY teaches
mathematics at McGill University. He has contributed to
Astounding / Analog under John Campbell, Ben Bova,
and Stanley Schmidt. His Courtship Rite was a nominee for
the Hugo Award for Best SF Novel of 1982.
SHAWNA McCARTHY, for a short time Managing Editor of
Analog, is now Editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction
JUDITH MERRIL was the foremost
anthology editor in the 1950s and early 60s. Particularly
noteworthy are her fourteen Best of the Year volumes. She
was the leading North American proponent of the New Wave. Her
personal book collection now forms the nucleus of Toronto's
Spaced Out Library, the world's largest public SF collection.
JOHN FLINT ROY is a leading authority on the writings of
Edgar Rice Burroughs. His A Guide to Barsoom: The Mars of
ERB was published in 1976 by Ballantine Books. He has
contributed over fifty papers to various publications devoted to
Burroughs. Mr. Roy is a retired RCMP officer.
STANLEY SCHMIDT, Ph.D., a physicist, is the editor of
Analog. As an author, he was developed by his
predecessors, Campbell and Bova.
BAIRD SEARLES is senior author of A Reader's Guide to
Science Fiction (Avon, 1979). His SF book reviews have been
published in The New York Times, The Village Voice,
and Publishers Weekly and he writes monthly review columns
for Isaac Asimov's (on books) and Amazing (on
films). He runs The Science Fiction Shop in New York City.
ANDREW WEINER with a master's
degree in social psychology is a typical New Wave author. His
work has appeared in Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions,
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and
Interzone, a recent New Wave quarterly from Britain.
DONALD A. WOLLHEIM edits the DAW SF line which is
distributed by New American Library. He was one of the founders
of SF fandom and edited the first SF anthology, The Pocket
Book of Science Fiction (1943). Wollheim is a severe critic
of the New Wave.
Colombo, Fitting, Gotlieb, Merril, and Weiner live in Toronto.
Roy makes his home in Ridgetown, Ontario. Kingsbury lives in
Montreal. The others reside in New York City.
5. About the Author
[1983 bionote] ROBERT J. SAWYER,
formerly a staff member of the School of Radio and Television
Arts, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto, is a full-time
freelance writer. He is a member of both the Canadian Science
Writers' Association and the Science Fiction Writers of America.
His SF stories have been published in
The Village Voice,
Leisure Ways, and the Doubleday
100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories
co-edited by Isaac Asimov. His writings on SF and related topics
have appeared in The Toronto Star, Books in Canada,
Science Fiction Review,
Canadian Book Review Annual, and Canadian Author & Bookman.
More Good Reading
Rob's 1987 Ideas proposal "Copyright: Intellectual Property in the Information Age"
Robert J. Sawyer's profile of Judith Merril
Library of Congress lecture: "Is There A Place For Science Fiction in the 21st Century?"
Rob on TV