[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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The Future Then And Now

The Evolution of Science Fiction

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1983 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

Based on the following outline, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned 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.

1. Thesis

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 intelligence.

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 rapid evolution.

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.

2. Format

Each program will consist of:

  1. Discussion of the historical context, the relationship between SF and Science, and the literary development of the genre;

  2. Supporting voice clips from SF authors and major critics;

  3. 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.);

  4. 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);

  5. 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 follows:


(The Paleoscific)

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 Astounding Stories).

Hour Two: The Golden Age

(The Mesoscific)

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 Cenoscific)

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
  • 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 simpler life.

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 all-SF magazine.

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
  • JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO on Canadian pulp fiction
  • RAYMOND Z. GALLUN on his stories of this period
  • DR. PETER FITTING on Olaf Stapledon
  • ISAAC ASIMOV on Weinbaum

The Golden Age (1939 to 1957)

Scientific: Soft, sociological sciences with no speculation.

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 one time.

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 Campbell
  • 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 technology. Unpopular.

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.

Central Publication: 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 amongst ourselves.

  • "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 to date
  • 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 Magazine.

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 anthology 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?"

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