Friday, 30 March 2018

Living Authors

(Blogging has been interrupted by a Good Friday outing with Nygel (see Nygel G Harrot, also here and here).

Out of our cellar:

James Blish, "On Science Fiction Criticism" IN Riverside Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 3, August 1968 (Box 40 Univ. Sta., Regina, Canada), pp. 214-217.

Although this article is fifty years old, it makes several points that need to be considered by anyone reading a Poul Anderson Appreciation blog in 2018:

in 1968, apparently, many literary critics of sf referred back to the era of Jules Verne, who had died in 1905;

however, " fiction is uniquely dominated by living authors, since it is based upon modern technology..." (p. 214);

the "...few dead giants..." (ibid.) that Blish lists are Verne, Wells, C.S. Lewis and Orwell;

however, sf as a modern phenomenon dates only from 1926 when the specialized magazines began;

a critic writing in 1968 should at least mention Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein or Sturgeon;

Blish also mentions Hal Clement, Lester del Rey and Don A. Stuart as authors who have imagined extraterrestrial environments;

within sf, there is wide acceptance of Sturgeon's rule that a good sf story has a human problem and solution that are dependent on the story's scientific content;

by this rule, Lovecraft and Bradbury are not sf writers;

instead, they are science-fearing Faustian fantasy writers;

routine commercial sf puts "...a few futuristic trappings..." (p. 215) on ordinary terrestrial settings and plots;

sf, uniquely, has been "...consistently judged by its worst examples." (p. 215)

There is more than this in Blish's article but that is plenty for one post.

(i) Poul Anderson is no longer living but remains significant and will surely become one of the few giants.
(ii) Blish does not mention Stapledon but nor did he claim that his short list of giants was definitive.
(iii) I remember from conversation that Blish was unfamiliar with Stapledon's Last And First Men and therefore, of course, would not comment on it.
(iv) Lewis was certainly an imaginative fantasy writer but does he not belong with Lovecraft and Bradbury rather than with Wells?
(v) Orwell is included on the strength of a single novel but Blish said elsewhere that 1984 was important for sf because it was about something: the purpose of power.
(vi) Anderson refers to Hal Clement.
(vii) Anderson's works are good sf by Sturgeon's rule.
(viii) Anderson has been accused of putting futuristic trappings on terrestrial plots. See here.


S.M. Stirling said...

I'm going to speak at the Williamson Lecture in Portales, NM next week -- it's in honor of Jack Williamson, author of DARKER THAN YOU THINK and many other SF works.

He came to New Mexico in a covered wagon over a century ago, sold his first SF story to Hugo Gernsback in the 1920's, and THE HUMANOIDS and many others, and published his last SF novel in 2005.

In other words, his career spanned nearly the entirety of modern SF, up until the early 21st century.

It's a young field, but getting older a day at a time...

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul and Mr. Stirling!

Paul: I've said more than once that Jules Verne is one of the two fathers of modern science fiction (the other being, of course, H.G. Wells). All SF fans with some pretension to knowledge of the field should be familiar with Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA or FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. One problem I read of being that there has been few really satisfactory translations of Verne's books from French into English.

I don't think all commercial SF deserves only contempt. Well done, well written science fiction can be well worth reading and thinking about. I do agree SF has been too often judged by its worst examples.

Going down your list of eight points:

(i), I agree.

(ii), I've read a couple of Olaf Stapledon's works and I can't truly say they "grabbed" me. Well worth reading, but I have my doubts he will be counted among the four or five giants of science fiction. Stapledon seems to be very much an acquired taste.

(iii), I agree. Better not to comment on a writer if you have not read any of his works.

(iv), C.S. Lewis belongs more with Bradbury than Lovecraft. Lewis was not a writer of horror, after all!

(v), Speaking from memory, 1984 said the purpose of power was a boot stamping forever on one's face! Grimly dystopian!

(vi), Anderson's THE MAN WHO COUNTS was directly inspired by Hal Clement's works.

(vii), I agree.

(viii), I disagree with people who think like that. Anderson was not a believer in "transhumanism." He was extremely skeptical of dreams about mankind somehow transforming themselves into perfect, idealized, god like beings. And this naturally showed up in his works.

Mr. Stirling: alas, Jack Williamson is yet another of those writers, like H. Beam Piper, I know too shamefully little about. Maybe you could write up the gist of your Williamson lecture into an essay and pub. it in a magazine?