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)