Thursday, March 31, 2016

Back to Basics

The cover of one of Jules Verne's early scientific
romances, The Voyages of Captain Hatteras
at the North Pole
, as published by
Pierre-Jules Hetzel in 1864 
Today, I came across this article by author Darren Beyer.

I can't begin to describe how sad it is to me that an article like this is even possible, though I confess it's not at all surprising - and perhaps Beyer isn't to be blamed.

Beyer is right that science-rooted, story and character driven SF has been around for a while, and even right that for some time now it has been something of a niche market. 

But the sad thing is that he seems oblivious to the work that came before Campbell - the works of the 20s, 30s and 40s - and even earlier if we count the speculative scientific romances of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells - that, while not scientifically accurate by modern standards, were as scientific as the authors could achieve.
Oh, sure, there was a pew pew pew element right from the beginning I suppose - though even the heat ray riddled Martian invasion imagined by Wells was conceived as a serious speculation as to just how horrible war could become.  Even there, recent developments suggest that pew pew pew may not have been so much fantastic fluff after all.  But even so: I don't think any reasonable person would say that Wells and Verne and Shelley were obscure niche interests...would they?

The thing is that these pre-Campell authors were working in the dark - they were starting from nothing and "logicking up" their visions of the future from what they saw at the Worlds Fair or in Radio Magazine.  Sure, we wouldn't recognise some of their ideas as realistic today, but in many cases they seemed realistic at the time.  And many fo the "scientifiction" stories were being published in perfectly mainstream serials of the sort that were so popular in the 20s and 30s, not a marginal "ghetto" by any means, even if the maturing of the genre in the 50s and 60s led to it becoming one.  Remember: Hugo Gernsback didn't attempt to take scientific romance into an obscure (not really) dedicated pulp magazine named Amazing Stories until 1926 - and he did so specifically because of the requests he was receiving from readers of his more general titles for "more of this sort of thing."

Sure, the early Amazing era SF came along with a healthy dose of Buck Rogers, John Carter and Flash Gordon - but no: "smart science fiction" isn't "an emerging sub-genre" at all. It's a return to first principles.

I'm glad that Beyer and Weir and other authors of their frame of mind are enthusiastic about bringing "scientifiction" back - making strong speculative science futures that can be of interest to a wider audience.  I think the market is ripe for it - interest in new technologies and enthusiasm for their potential to change our world is at a high point like it hasn't been for decades.

But if Beyer and Weir and the others dismiss Verne and Wells and their descendants who published in the early pulp era as mere fantasists I think they're doing themselves a deep disservice.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Going Round and Round with Revolution

Pohl (left) & possibly Wollheim (right) look on as Jack
Williamson (center) meets a crowd at Nycon I in 1939.
Photo from Howard DeVore as published by FANAC  

With the closing of nomination ballots coming up (March 31) yet another Hugo season is upon us.

For many fans, the next few months will also be a season of tension and rancor, as the ongoing battle between what might be called “core Worldcon fandom” and “Puppies Sad or Rabid” once again flares up into actual shots fired.[1]

On the one hand, we have the objections of people who consider themselves fans – certainly avid readers and followers of SFF by all accounts – that certain hugely popular authors seem to get passed over at the Hugos in favour of work that simply checks politically popular boxes.  The extreme version of this objection alleges secret cabals (perhaps in the service of shadowy masters deep in the land of Mordor a major publisher) who manipulate the outcome of the Hugos either by organized voting campaigns or perhaps even by directly tweaking the voting system in their favour.

On the other hand, we have the counter-objections of the loyal fen, who demure, claiming that the only shenanigans are on the part of the Puppies and their highly recommended lockstep voting reading lists…claims that at times seem to echo with a curious harmony in the naturally entirely neutral journalism of the mass media.

Frankly, I find the claims on both sides to be laughably extreme.  I have my own thoughts on the actions that led to Vox Day’s ejection from SFWA that I won’t air here [2], but the whole Puppies vs Fandom thing has evolved into a conflict of unprecedented animosity.

Or has it?

The the scale may be larger as a feature of modern technology, but the fact is that this kind of political wrangling is nothing new to Worldcon: way back in the mists of time, at the very first Worldcon in 1939, an eerily similar dispute led to a group of fans being barred from the event entirely.

Cast your mind back to the late 1930s, a world in transition:

The world was finally emerging from a crushing depression, Europe was in turmoil following the Great War and a series of socialist and other revolutions, Hitler’s Germany was on the rise, having successfully annexed both Austria and Czechoslovakia while the great powers dithered, fascism was gaining power not only there but seemingly everywhere in opposition to the socialist wave, and technology was progressing at a break-neck pace.  

Just two months after the grand opening of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and on the edges of this tumultuous time, the very first Worldcon was held in New York – NyCon I as it was eventually called.

Now, it must be said that this wasn’t by any means the first “con” – that honour goes to what Dave Kyle called The First Eastern Science Fiction Convention [3] [4], which was held in Philadelphia in 1936.  It was also by no means a large affair, mind, being just a visit to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (PSFS) by members of the International Scientific Association (ISA), by reports of people who were there involving only a dozen people or fewer. [5] But this was a meeting of the early minds of American SF fandom:
  •       John Michel - NY (who originated the idea of some outing for the NY chapter of the SFL in the first place)
  •           Donald Wollheim - NY (who specifically suggested a visit to Philadelphia)
  •           Milton Rothman – Phil (who hosted the meeting at his home and chaired the meeting)
  •           Fred Pohl – NY (who served as secretary)
  •           Dave Kyle - NY
  •           William Sykora – NY
  •           Herbert Goudket – NY (who was behind the camera for the apocryphal photo)
  •           Robert Madle – Phil
  •           Ossie Train - Phil
  •           And some fellow named Hahn [6] along with, presumably, others to bring the total to about 12.

This is not a mere digression, however, since I suspect the seeds of revolution were planted on that fateful October 22 in 1936.

The key factor here is probably Sykora, who was an enormous fan from the beginning.  He wasn’t just a charter subscriber to Amazing Stories when the eponymous Hugo Gernsback launched it in 1926 but also a core member of a number of early science and SF associations, such as The Scienceers [7], the SFL (GNY branch), the International Cosmos Science Club, and the ISA.  An association of note that Sykora was most emphatically not a member of was the Futurian Society.  And so begins our real story.

 The Futurians numbered quite a few names that are well known in modern Fandom: people like Isaac Asimov, James Blish and his future wife Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Judith Merril – and some of the GNY-SFL members who traveled to Philadelphia: John Michel, Fred Pohl, Dave Kyle and Donald Wollheim.

Now, the New York Futurians [8] were remarkably influential, considering that they never really numbered very many, were never  and only lasted about seven years. But they /were/ intense, and differed from the more “ordinary” Gernsbackian SFandom, which insisted that fans and SF authors should ideally strive for the advancement of science – specifically, the Futurians were progressives of the time – Bohemian, anarchistic in organization, prone to free verse in poetry and decadence in literature and art.  They were sympathetic to the anarchist and communist efforts against fascist Franco in Spain (and other Fascists), and themselves defined a Futurian as one who:

“thru SF rise to vision a greater world, a greater future for the whole of mankind, and wishes to utilize his idealistic convictions for aid in a generally cooperative and diverse movement for the betterment of the world along democratic, impersonal, and unselfish lines.” [9]

Though Futurian thought was often referred to as Wollheimianism the idea really originated with John Michel in 1937:

At the 1937 Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, Donald Wollheim read a speech penned by Michel entitled “Mutation or Death!” [10] which denounced “the Gernsbackian delusion” of science alone as the way forward: Michel in this speech denounced Mussolini and other fascists, denounced what people might call today “the military industrial complex”, and declared the solidarity of SFandom with “the heroic defenders of Madrid and Shanghai.” – his declaration that SFandom was obligated to join forces to work toward a future utopian world state was taken by many to refer to communism (probably a justified assumption given the congruence between his rhetoric and that of Bolshevik revolutionaries of the era, not to mention Michel’s involvement in the Young Communist League)

This began a(nother) rather rancorous cycle of feuding in US fandom, with Michel and certain other Futurians (notably Donald Wollheim and Fred Pohl) growing increasingly political, which rubbed rather a lot of fandom the wrong way, including solid “Gernsbackian” science first fans such as Sam Moskowitz and William Sykora, the latter being a particular bugbear for the Michelian Futurists for reasons I really don’t understand – I presume simply because he was one of those who most bluntly told the kids to settle down. [11]

Things really came to a head, though, in 1939, at the time of the first official Worldcon, later dubbed Nycon by the inimitable Forrest Ackerman: this convention, being held under the auspices of the New York fandom, was chaired by Futurian nemesis Sam Moskowitz along with two others well hated by the utopians: William Sykora and James Taurasi.

These three men not only disapproved of the injection of politics into SFandom by the Futurians, but were keenly aware of the opinion of other fan organizations and more importantly the fact that the convention was likely to be fairly high profile owing to the fact that the Worlds Fair then going on in New York was themed “The World of Tomorrow” – how could the first ever major science fiction convention /not/ attract attention?  How would it look if brash, outspoken young men and women seemed to be talking (socialist) revolution?

As a result, the Triumvirate (as they were to be called) made a decision later known to fannish historians as “The Great Exclusion Act” to ban Michel, Wollheim, Pohl and others from attending, on account of rumours that they intended to issue yet another manifesto during the proceedings, whether approved or not – a concern that was based on past disruption at the smaller Newark convention in 1938[12] and the discovery of a pamphlet [13] that was written and distributed by fellow Futurian Dave Kyle and others [14].


A dispute in fandom over what SF should be and what it should achieve.  A dispute over what the tone and obligations of fandom should be like.  A dispute, even, over what precisely defines rightfan and wrongfan thinking.

How does that quote go?  Ah yes:
 “History doesn’t always repeat itself.  Sometimes it just screams, 'Why don’t you listen to me?' and lets fly with a big stick.” – John W. Campbell Jr.


1. Metaphorically actual, obviously.

2. No, really.  I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while I don’t think I’d enjoy having a drink with the man he’s also been treated to what appears to be an unfair drubbing in the mass media.

3. But which the attendees officially dubbed the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention in reference to the fact that both the Republican and Democratic national conventions had been held there earlier in the year.

4. And in fact, there’s even some dispute as to whether this was the first: it was a meeting, certainly, and they took the name “convention” for the business meeting, but it may be that the event held by the UK’s LeedsScience Fiction League in January 1937 was the first true “con”.

5. Though John Michel’s account in a fanzine later that year reputedly claims there were only 9 attendees (and he refers to a photo – though I haven’t been able to locate one) Dave Kyle – who was also there – says there were “barely a dozen” in his own recollection of the event .  I like to think of the attendance as being 10±2 with one of the minimal 9 – Herbert Goudket - being a kind of “Schroedinger’s Fan” as he was supposedly there, but not shown in the photo because he was behind the camera.

6. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Hahn’s given name…er…given, and as a result every time I see or write the name I have the irrepressible image of James Tiberius Kirk expressing his outrage at being outwitted by his ancient nemesis. I feel certain the gentleman in no way resembled Ricardo Montalban, however.

7. Possibly the first SF fanclub ever!

8. Not affiliated with other groups calling themselves Futurians, though the Left Coast group in LA with the same name did apparently move en masse to the Right Coast to join up with them…just in time for the society to collapse as a result of the lawsuit filed by Wollheim in response to “The X Document” – a one shot publication that detailed an internicene conflict among the Futurians of New York.

10. Full text of Michel's manifesto "Mutation or Death" is available here

11. It should be remembered that many of the players in this drama were younger than Michel, who at the time of Nycon 1 in 1939 was only 22 – some of them were still in their teens throughout this controversy!

12. This convention was marred by accusations of high-handed and dictatorial action by the organizers, and various sniping among political factions in fandom…sound familiar?

13. The full text of the famous Yellow Pamphlet is here

14. Who, strangely, despite being the nucleus of the decision to Exclude, was allowed to remain.  All reference to this seems to agree that he was allowed to stay because he was already in the hall…and yet, it appears that some others who were distributing the pamphlet, including Robert Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and Jack Gillespie were ejected. I’m at a loss as to what the difference was, unless it was simply that Kyle was physically inside the hall at the time the decision was made, while the others were distributing pamphlets outside.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Other Lenses, Other Worlds

Almost certainly not what C.S.Lewis had in mind [1]
(image of Narasinha, avatar of Vishnu,
slaying Hiranyakashipu from )
The greatest argument for reading much and reading widely is the chance to see sides of things that were invisible to the authors - if only by virture of having a completely different perspective. [2]

An excellent example of this is this article by Vishwas R. Gaitonde on viewing Narnia through a Hindu lens.

Gaitonde takes us on a tour of the Narnia Chronicles, pointing out places where some of the ideas of Hinduism [3] can be seen resonating with the text.

At first blush, this seems surprising - didn't Lewis write the Narnia Chronicles as a kind of Christian allegory? [4] Certainly, given Lewis's reputation as an apologist this would seem to be the obvious assumption.

However, the story may be more complicated, and in this case at least it's possible that the fresh, invisible perspectives that Mr. Gaitonde sees through a Hindu lens may not be entirely unintended by Lewis.

Lewis wasn't always an ardent apologist.  Raised in the Church of Ireland [5], he lost his religion in middle school and for years afterwards seems to have been an unsatisfied atheist.  Not, of course, that atheism is fundamentally unsatisfying [6] - it's just that he seems to have spent rather a lot of time searching for something to fill the void that was left when he turned away from his church.  Indeed, biographies of Lewis note that he initially "renounced his faith" to explore mythology and paganism, and it seems that he didn't really become what we would call an atheist today [7] until he had suffered through the trials of the Great War. [8]

More, on his return to Oxford and completion of his studies (which had been interrupted by military service) Lewis may ultimately have found himself on the English faculty [9] but he also lectured for a time in Philosophy - and it may be that he was still "seeking" at this time, because he seems to have continued questioning and suffering until his rather sudden and painful reconversion in the late 1920s, first to a kind of theism and then finally back to the Church of England. [10]

Now here's the thing: By the time he published The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, Lewis had established himself as a well known apologist and firmly created the public image of a Christian.  But Lewis was also a scholar of literature - particularly mythologies - in an era when Europe was developing a keen interest in Eastern religions.  Combine this with his interest in the occult, paganism, and Celtic revival and the pan-Indoeuropean theories that informed various kinds of pagan and Celtic reconstructionism of the era certainly crossed his path - and surely also the "reconstruction by analogy" ideas did as well, drawing on the sophisticated polytheisms of the East to build an idea of what Celtic and Norse mysticisms may have been like.

Now, from Lewis's own writing we get the sense that he really didn't respect Hinduism (or, indeed, any non-Christian religion), particularly if we start our look at his ideas with his essay "Christian Apologetics" in which he neatly dismisses several world religions as merely heresies of one another, and in the space of a paragraph refutes Hinduism's claim on being a "true religion".  Looking into his work in Narnia, one also gets the sense from his treatment of Tash that perhaps he dismisses the gods of other religions as irrelevant.

But we must remember: Lewis was a convert - that he had REconverted back to Christianity may not be relevant: converts are, after all, notoriously strident in their views.  Sadly, there seem to be none of Lewis's writings prior to his conversion that have survived without at the very least being edited by the author himself - as such, it's hard to see what understanding of world religions he may have had.  Certainly, his comments on non-Christian faiths in later writing, while not mean-spirited, do seem to indicate a lack of deep understanding.

However, there is that early period of searching, and there is his writing in The Abolition of Man which seems to reflect a rather broad knowledge - and in particular, Hinduism is mentioned.

Moreover, there is the fact that his student and lifelong friend, Alan Griffiths converted to Catholicism in the same year Lewis returned to Anglicanism, taking the monastic name Bede and eventually becoming known for his involvement in the Christian ashram movement in India, where he blended Hindu (mainly yogic) mysticism with Christianity in his evangelism.

Griffiths in fact began his study of yoga and the vedas in the late 40s and it seems likely that he and Lewis discussed - and probably corresponded - on the subject, given both their deep interests in religion and Christian apologia.

I can't know what went through Lewis's mind as he wrote the Narnia Chronicles, of course - at least not beyond what he himself has told us in his own autobiographical writing.  But it seems unlikely to me that he was unaware of some of the basic ideas of Hinduism (and other religions) and the nature of his personal quest for spiritual fulfillment, his two years as a theist, all this suggests that in his personal thoughts at least he likely saw much universal truth in the world's great religions.  Given his personal history and the times in which he lived, it would have been a common thing to assume that these universal truths (things like "do unto others..." and love/peace as a fundamental moral goal) issued from a common source: the God of Abraham - and that those other religions that echoed the tenets of Christianity were unfortunately confused as to the "truth."

This is speculation, of course, but given this as an assumption is it so far fetched to think he may have drawn on his own knowledge of other religions in his creation of a fantastic world in which his own Savior might have manifested in another form?  Certainly, this idea - the idea of "the lamb" who, in Narnia at least, manifests as "the lion" (as explained by Aslan himself in Voyage of the Dawn Treader), and presumably manifests in other ways in other worlds (there being a multitude, as we learn in The Magician's Nephew) seems to be a nod to the idea of Hindu avatars.

Despite Lewis's deep Christian convictions through the latter half of his life, and the fact he held these ideas at the time he wrote the Narnia Chronicles, I personally find it difficult to ascribe all the echoes of other world religions in his works to accident.  It's possible he didn't deliberately craft his writing to include them, but I feel certain that his interest in mythology and fairy stories would have planted the seeds in his mind, and that he would certainly have drawn on symbols and imagery that corresponded to his own understanding of Christianity.

So yes, there are other lenses through which we can read these works, and I can certainly see the interesting ways in which Mr. Gaitonde found to read the Narnia Chronicles through Hindu eyes.

But these books aren't so much a set of Christian stories as a set of mystical stories - and in the 20th Century, where better for an British scholar in 1950 to find mysticism than in India?


1. Though it would make the conflict between Aslan and Tash much cooler!

2. I don't actually hold to the "death of the author" theory of reading, but I do think it's blindingly obvious that readers can bring their own perspectives to works, and that this perspective can lead to their own thoughts and images.

3. Assuming Hinduism to be a homogeneous entity, of course.

4. No, actually - Lewis himself said in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature:
"Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them.  This is all pure moonshine.  I couldn't write in that way." (p46 in my 1982 Harcourt edition - near the beginning of the essay "Sometimes fairy stories may say best what's to be said"
5. Just a rather green sort of Church of England, really...or would that be Orange?

6. Though I suppose the example of Socrates shows it can cause bitterness - though perhaps not always in the atheists themselves.

7. At the time Lewis proclaimed himself atheist, in England at least the term might just as well have meant "non-Christian" - as indeed it does in some parts of the world today.

8. Lewis was not only injured in combat, but lost a close friend during the war - a friend close enough that he seems to have made a promise to make sure his friend's mother was taken care of, and in fact eventually the two lived together despite the 20-some year difference in their ages.  There has been speculation that they were lovers (of course - such speculation always occurs when a man has a particularly intimate relationship with a woman) but Lewis consistently refers to her in correspondence and other writings as his "mother," which makes me think it may simply have been a very close emotional and intellectual relationship.

9. Lewis had developed a strong interest in mythology, particularly Northern European mythology such as the Icelandic Eddas, and was apparently involved in the Celtic revivalist movement - a natural fit for a transplanted Irish scholar, and excellent qualifications for his installment in the new Medieval and Renaissance Literature faculty at Magdalene College.

10. Much to the rather famous chagrin of his friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, who had hoped he would become Catholic. Lewis turned to theism in 1929, then (the story goes) committed to Christianity again after a midnight walk and discussion with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.