CoNZealand part 3: history of science fiction, history and science fiction

Follow the links to catch up on part 1 and part 2 of my write-up of the recent World Science Fiction Convention hosted in Wellington, New Zealand, and accessed remotely throughout the world. We are now up to half way through the con’s third day.

Continuing my interest in the science fiction of yore I next found myself virtually attending a panel entitled The Second Golden Age: SF of the 1960s, featuring panelists old enough to remember the 1960s (e.g. Robert Silverberg) and younger ones who look back with a modern eye (e.g. Cora Buhlert, who writes for Galactic Journey, which looks back on SF from 55 years ago). Silverberg started by gamely stating that the 1960s golden age of SF was in fact the third, with the first being that of c. 1939 to 1942 (the early years of John W. Campbell editing Astounding, when he was publishing loads of new writers) and the second being in the 1950s (when a number of new magazines were giving writers freedom to experiment and to explore new directions). I’m guessing the first Golden Age ran out of steam when the writers started being called up to fight in the war, while the second ended abruptly when the company publishing many of the magazines went bust, leaving writers struggling to find outlets for their work (I have read separately that Silverberg spent a couple of years churning out pornography at this point).
As Silverberg put it, the third golden age of the late 1960s was basically the New Wave of Science Fiction, when there was an expansion of the paperback market for new SF and the emergence of editors (some from outside the SF field) who were generous in the freedom they gave to authors, leading to the emergence of new writers and the embrace of more experimental forms, including literary modernism. Unfortunately the New Wave was a lot more popular with writers and editors than readers, so a period of retrenchment followed after publishers noticed that this stuff wasn’t selling that well, with Star Wars providing the final nail in its coffin.

The New Wave is something I find very interesting but do not know too much about and wish to explore further, both in terms of the writing itself and critical discussion on it. Fortunately I have Adam Roberts’ book The History of Science Fiction to hand, with an entire chapter on the subject, while the Golancz SF Masterworks edition of the Dangerous Visions anthology probably provides a useful introduction to the sub-genre. My sense is that the movement represented a significant opening up of science fiction to new concerns and new voices, chiming well with the iconoclastic and semi-revolutionary times in which it appeared. Further investigation is required.

Nevertheless, at the panel, I was struck by Kathryn Sullivan flying the flag for the science fiction of the early 1960s (i.e. pre-New Wave), which was reminiscent of arguments about whether early or late Beatles music is best. There was also an interesting discussion of how the Vietnam War divided American SF writers. Mention was made of a survey of SF writers and editors co-organised by the Futurian Judith Merrill, the results of which were then published in a number of magazines of the era. To some extent this pitted younger writers against the old, while still throwing up a few surprises. One thing Silverberg noted was that the hard SF writers were more likely to support the war; mysterious.
Thence to a panel entitled History and SF, which looked both at how authors create convincing historical backgrounds in their work and how real history can be used in fiction. I love reading about history so there was a real together-at-last aspect to this panel, made even more so when panellist Farah Mendlesohn revealed herself to be a historian of the 17th century, one of the more fascinating periods of human existence. Some of what was talked about here was more history than SF, which was reasonably fine by me. I was struck in particular by Mendlesohn’s comments on destinarianism (the idea that people have a destiny to do particular things, something not uncommon in SF narratives) and how it does not really work in real life – people who think of them as Persons of Destiny tend to end up dead. In contrast you get people like Oliver Cromwell who eventually assume a pre-eminent position by being the last man standing (though I wonder in his case if he then came retrospectively to see himself as God’s chosen instrument).

Still with Cromwell, Mendlesohn noted that much of the bad reputation he enjoys in some quarters derives from Royalist propaganda, which often blamed him for things he did that were continuations of pre-existing policies of King Charles. She mentioned Ireland specifically here, which is something I would like to explore further, as my gut feeling is that the reputation Cromwell has among my Irish compatriots for being the most evil man who ever lived may be somewhat exaggerated.

A further interesting point made was how people in the past perceived life differently to how we do. Sometimes this differing perception was literal – the world was rife with sights, sounds and smells we do not encounter now (mention was made of a book about late mediaeval Florence by Niall Atkinson entitled The Noisy Renaissance), while in a time before the invention of glasses or hearing aids many people could not see or hear properly – but also conceptual, as people had radically different ways of conceiving how the world worked. That should perhaps be an inspiration to writers to remember that characters in their far future space books might well have very different ways of thinking to ours.

Further moments in this panel included Ada Palmer mentioning that the way characters randomly appear and disappear in the historical record can be rather unsatisfying in fiction. It was further noted that science fiction has not really caught up with the way historical fiction and history writing have now embraced writing about the small people in the background. I liked the point about how the losers of history (notably 17th century Royalists or the Confederates in 19th century America) have a tendency to whine about how harshly they have been treated, obscuring the ways in which they would have behaved towards their enemies had they won. And I was fascinated by Mendlesohn’s point about how it was servants themselves and not evil capitalist masters who drove the transition of domestic service from a pseudo-familial relationship to one of waged employment. Overall this was a most enjoyable panel and one that had me itching to read more of the panellists’ work, both fictional and historical.

That was it for me and CoNZealand’s Friday programme, though the magic of time differences meant that I saw all of those on my Thursday (or very early on Friday morning).

There will be another CoNZealand post soon, possibly tomorrow. See you then.


Robert Silverberg (Three Rooms Press: What Would Robert Silverberg Do? An Exclusive Interview with the Sci-Fi Master)

Writers for and against the Vietnam War (Alex Cox Films: American Science Fiction Writers and the Vietnam War)

The Devil joins Oliver Cromwell and his associates (British Library)

Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 4: New Wave, Hugos #Worldcon75

Continuing my account of the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, this episode is mainly concerned with the Hugo Awards and the New Wave of Science Fiction.

The Hugos loomed large over my Friday at Worldcon. I had assisted with the preparation work for the Hugos in their earlier stages (doing the barest minimum quantum of work that counts as doing “something” rather than “nothing”). I also assisted on the day with a last-minute re-check of the ceremony’s In Memoriam scroll. At one point I was also going to be the person who clicked the next button on the ceremony’s PowerPoint scroll, but wiser counsel prevailed.

For various reasons I saw very little of the day’s programme stuff, being particularly disappointed to miss a discussion on The Prisoner. I did however make it to a session of the academic track that looked at the New Wave of Science Fiction. This began with a discussion by Päivi Väätänen on the influence of the New Wave on the fiction of Samuel R. Delany. Delany is one of those writers who sounds fascinating but whose work I have never got round to. The discussion focussed on two novels, The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Väätänen said that the two books are thematically somewhat similar but the second is much more experimental and “difficult”, with the difference arising from Delany’s discovery and embrace of the SF New Wave, in which ideas from modernist fiction and the counter-culture invaded Science Fiction.

The New Wave is again one of those things that I am interested in but have not read that much of. I know that some old school SF fans were very dismissive of the attempt to import modernism into Science Fiction (Kingsley Amis is very eloquent in this regard) while others saw the New Wave as a necessary reaction to a creeping formulaicisation of the genre. The New Wave opened the floodgates for stylistic experimentation and exploration of new themes in 1970s SF but in retrospect it seems sometimes to have been a failed experiment, with the rise of cyberpunk in the 1980s putting SF back into less literary and experimental territory. The 1980s was a decade of reaction so it is not too surprising that this was the case in SF too.

Coming away from this particular discussion I found myself thinking that it really is high time I actually read something by Delany and perhaps also the Gollancz SF Masterworks reprint of the Dangerous Visions anthology of New Wave short stories.

Then Audrey Taylor discussed Decision at Doona, an early novel by Anne McCaffrey that is apparently more formally interesting than McCaffrey’s later works (books I have a perhaps unfairly low opinion of). This one is about human-alien first contact on a planet called Doona, with deliberate misdirection being used in the chapters to mislead as to whether we are following events from the human or alien point of view. Taylor suggested that, unusually for McCaffrey, this showed the influence of the New Wave (or the ideas outside SF that gave rise to the New Wave).

Taylor asserted that normally in this kind of book we are presented with a Cowboys and Indians In Space setup where the human colonisers are portrayed as the good guys while they roll over the aliens. I felt like calling out “[citation needed]!” here, as I am unaware of books that take this line, being more used to books portraying colonisation as bad thing (which might be an effect of living in a country that was colonised). Be that as it may, in Decision at Doona the focus is more on the humans and aliens fumbling towards an accommodation and being determined not to repeat adverse events in their own histories of interaction with other species, all the while hampered by their difficulties in understanding each other.

The book sounded intriguing, playing with ideas of the kind of character who gets to be the hero and subverting normal plot models by having non-confrontational but still difficult resolutions of problems. I see also from looking at covers of the book online that the aliens are anthropomorphic cats, which makes this surely a book ripe for rediscovery as a lost classic.

That really was it for me until the Hugo Awards ceremony itself. Like many awards ceremonies, theses went on a bit. I am something of a slow reader so I had read none of the winning works or any of the nominees. I was a bit disappointed that Chuck Tingle did not win though I can see why voters might have decided to pick someone who had a more direct relationship with SF. Clipping did not win either though they did receive one of the biggest cheers of the evening. The most amusing moment at the awards ceremony was when the name of sinister dipshit Vox Day was read out as a nominee in best editor category; a couple of people clapped politely and then trailed off, with the other nominees all receiving thunderous applause. However the best bit was hearing my own name read out from the stage, though of course next time this will be because I have swept all the fiction categories.

For all that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit, it nevertheless felt like an important celebration of the greatness of Science Fiction. These awards are voted by the fans and they reiterate the community aspect of SF. On that basis I have decided that I broadly approve of the existence of the various fan categories.

I must also praise the performance of Karen Lord as the Hugo Awards toastmaster. I would support having her do this at every Hugo Awards ever. I would also love to tell you about what happened at the post awards party in a Helsinki steampunk bar but Chatham House rules apply.

Hugo Administrator: Nicholas Whyte

Decision at Doona image source (Science Fiction Cover Art; artist: Bruce Pennington)

More of my own Worldcon pictures

Doona cover: