Good Reading : September 2005
goodreading 23 categorical of America, perhaps because it had not suffered as Europe and Britain had dur- ing World War I, and its futuristic fiction was far more optimistic. In no way anx- ious about the future of humankind, the American style of ‘interplanetary fiction’ in fashion just before and after World War I, envisaged an enlightened, technologi- cally advanced homo sapiens colonising the universe. It was largely due to the success of this style of fiction, typified by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sprawling, extravagant ‘Martian Tales’ series and E ‘Doc’ Smith, writer of the classic ‘Lensman’ series, that Hugo Gernsback introduced a series of pulp magazines specialising in futuristic and interplanetary fiction and it was he who popularised the term science fiction in the late 1920s. Critics dubbed these energetic but slightly unbelievable space adventure stories, space opera, and the name stuck. While such condescension had no effect on the popularity of science fic- tion, the angst engendered by the Great Depression, and the looming World War II, saw the rise of more intellectu- ally sophisticated writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein,Theodore Sturgeon and AE Van Vogt. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British tradition was gradually assimilated into the more optimistic American style of science fiction as in the work of writers such as Arthur C Clarke. Nevertheless, the best of Britain’s post-war SF writers such as Clarke (The City and the Stars), John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids), JG Ballard (The Drowned World) and Brian Aldiss (Greybeard) combine the British catastrophist tradition with the energy and imaginative scope of the American style of science fiction. The end of World War II heralded the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction and its steady rise in popularity paralleled the increasing levels of technology in the modern world.The scientific advances engendered by World War II such as the atomic bomb, radar, jet aircraft, rockets and, later, space travel gener- ated intense popular interest in science. Capitalising on this interest, the story series of popular writers such as Asimov and Heinlein, which were previously restricted to popular magazines, were gathered together in book for m in the new paperback format and the popularity of SF increased dramatically.While the best science fiction writers of the 1950s made their reputation with sharp, clever short stories that in some cases, such as Asimov’s ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ series and Heinlein’s ‘Future History’ series, formed a more or less continuous narra- tive there was a gradual shift towards the novel as the dominant for m. Through the 1950s science fiction continued to develop with writers such as Robert Silverberg and Ray Bradbury coming to prominence. In particular, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 have become classics of the SF genre. By the mid-1960s science fiction became ever more experimental. In America, Harland Ellison produced the first of a series of taboo-breaking anthologies, Dangerous Visions while in Britain, Michael Moorcock’s surreal, moder nist ‘Jer ry Cornelius’ tetralogy typified the ‘New Wave’ as it became known. At the same time, less avant- garde writers enjoyed considerable commercial success in the 1960s. Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein all became bestselling authors as did Frank Herbert with the publication of Dune in 1965. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 made him a cult figure on American univer- sity campuses and encouraged serious academic attention to science fiction, which helped enhance the reputation of writers such as Philip K Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Prior to 1965, science fiction was primarily read and written by men but in the late-’60s and early ’70s several women such as Le Guin and Joanna Russ came to prominence. Nevertheless, by the late- 1970s and through to the early-1980s, it seemed that science fiction had lost its edge. Although some of the Golden Age authors continued to write into the 1980s, Asimov was mostly concerned with filling in the gaps in his ‘Foundation’ series to form a more or less continuous narrative and Heinlein became more and more concerned with elaborating on personal preoccupations as in The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. From the late-’70s, following the phenomenal success of the paperback edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, science fiction was somewhat eclipsed in the marketplace by ‘sword and sorcery’ style fantasy epics. Over time, however, the boundaries between the two genres became blurred by writers such as Julian May, Anne McCaffrey and Piers Anthony. Horror fiction writers like Stephen King, have frequently mixed science fiction ideas with more traditional supernatural images to further complicate the situation. Just why science fiction declined as a genre between the late-’70s and early-’80s is difficult to explain and some aficionados of the genre deny that such a ‘dead spot’ even exists.‘I’ve heard that line about late-’70s SF before, but I don’t quite buy it,’ says Scott Westerfeld, author of ‘New Wave’ space opera The Risen Empire. ‘Octavia Butler’s first five novels were written from 1976-80 and they’re all mind- and genre-bending. Vonda McIntyre was doing great things around that time, as were JohnVarley and Joanna Russ.The ‘dead spot’ theory may have something to do with the relatively large number of women entering the field in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Cyberpunk certainly shook things up by focusing on nanotechnology, biotechnology Illustration on left from front cover of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust published by Gollancz; Illustration on right from front cover of William Gibson’s Neuromancer published by Voyager.