Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Age of Despair

For some time now, the ideas of the Campbelline Age and the Golden Age of Science Fiction have been conflated, occupying a period of time from 1937 to 1971, ending with Campbell's death and the presumed rise of New Wave.* Yet during the Great Campbell War over at Castalia House, it became clear that the time period remembered as the height of the Golden Age was the 1950s and 1960s, not the height of the Campbelline Revolution in the 1940s. (This falls in line with Robert Silverberg's idea of when the Golden Age occurred.)  Campbell did remain influential during this time, burdening science fiction with psionics and other pseudoscientific concepts, but he was now one voice among many, and no longer the lead dog.

So where and why did Campbell's influence fade?

Let's start with a rexamination of Campbelline SF, a body of literature thought to be dominated by Men with Screwdrivers and the Happy Engineer.
The Happy Engineer is one of the great uninvestigated myths of contemporary science fiction. (Another is that Astounding/ Analog was/ is devoted to stories whose background is "hard science" requiring "heavy tech," but that is next Sunday's text.) The truth, as any fresh confrontation of the material would certainly make clear, is that the forties ASF is filled with darkness, that the majority of its most successful and reprinted stories dealt with the bleakest implications of technology and that "modern" science fiction (defined by Budrys as that which originated with Campbell's editorship of Astounding given him in October 1937) rather than being a problem-solving literature was a literature of despair. 
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 1216-1221). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Barry Malzberg's list of the works of despair published by Campbell shows that this tendency towards despair started at the beginning, with van Vogt in 1937. However, this natural tendency was accelerated in the mid 1940s, whether by atomic bomb or by world war. And fans began to notice, for:
[At] the world science fiction convention of 1947, at which [John Campbell] was guest of honor, he begged for the fans' indulgence at the profusion of despair, claiming that he could only publish what the writers were delivering . . . but he was sending out pleas to cease and desist. 
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 1243-1246). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
And, indeed, Campbell did exercise his editorial power. Unfortunately for him, H. L. Gold and Anthony Boucher soon started Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, both with a more permissible editorial policy in line with the fashion of the writers of the time, including the indulgence of despair. So many writers jumped the Campbelline ship for Gold and Boucher's in 1950. 

Campbell would never again hold the same prestige and power in science fiction.

To quote H.L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, in 1952: 
“Over 90% of stories submitted to Galaxy Science Fiction still nag away at atomic, hydrogen and bacteriological war, the post atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children killed because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve….the temptation is strong to write, ‘look, fellers, the end isn’t here yet.’”
By the time "The Cold Equations" killed off the Campbelline Revolution in 1954, science fiction sales had plateaued and most of the Campbelline authors, to include Asimov, the Kuttners, and Heinlein, had either abandoned science fiction entirely or sought out more lucrative markets. Science fiction magazines became increasingly dominated by an ever-shrinking authorship, and despair clung to the stories well into the 1980s, when Bruce Sterling would complain about the same types of stories as Gold.

As the height of this plunge into darkness occurred from 1945-1954, I would redraw the history of science fiction as follows:

1937-1945 - The Campbelline Revolution
1945-1954 - The Age of Despair
1954-1967 - The Golden Age

And it is in this Age of Despair where the otaku-ization of science fiction and the Futurian revolt occurred.


*If one reads sources from the 1970s and early 1980s, it is clear that New Wave had peaked and was pretty much over before Campbell's death. However, this is right about when mainstream science fiction attempted to be edgier than the New Wave.

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