The name of Vincent Omniaveritas, editor of the lively US broadsheet Cheap Truth, was mentioned in our recent interview with William Gibson (IZ 13). We think Interzone readers may be interested to hear more from this outspoken observer of the science fiction field. The following article originally appeared in a recent issue of the Puerto Rican fanzine Warhoon (edited by Richard Bergeron). It is reproduced here verbatim.
Hugo Gernsback was an entrepreneur, not overly troubled by consistency or scruples. First he designed batteries. Later he marketed a home radio set. In 1908, he published his first radio magazine, Modern Electrics.
Soon, however, it was clear that all was not well in the Gernsback attic. Something akin to fiction kept creeping in. In 1911 Modern Electrics began running a serial, or, rather, a technical forecasting polemic. This became Ralph 124C41+, a spavined „novel” whose naked technical obsession was barely veiled by threadbare literary technique.
An air of rank hybridization hung over Gernsback’s early efforts. Chunks of inferior literary DNA were clumsily spliced into a Petri dish of technical speculation, resulting in a chimeric blastoma he called „scientifiction.” Somehow the monster grew, and in April 1926 it clambered wetly onto the newstands as Amazing Stories, the first true sf magazine in English.
Such were the unholy beginnings of the pop industry that is modern American sf. These were the ethnic roots of true „ghetto sf,” a popular art form with a fanatic but strictly limited audience. Literateurs covered their eyes and fled; scientists sneered at its harebrained inaccuracy.
In the decades that followed the young genre veered from one unwilling parent to another. John Campbell’s ascendancy brought a long regime of „scientific” rigour, though his magazine’s hard-won rep for technical accuracy was liberally besplattered with psi stories, Dean drives, and Dianetics clearance sales. The New Wave of the 60s was sf’s closest approach to the maternal apron-strings of literature. The Wavicles, to their sorrow, failed to win either mainstream literary acceptance or the orthodox ghetto following.
Sf was left to its own devices and grew up wild and tattered. It lolled in gutters with sleazy movie producers, gashed eyeballs with horror-comic moguls, dropped acid with crack-brained rock stars. It hung around campuses, and even showed up in an ill-fitting tie and tweed jacket for English department seminars.
Sf’s followers developed the classical trademarks of a criminal underground. They adopted a cant slang. They met in conspiratorial conventions, which grew ever larger. They carried out long Mafia-like family feuds. Their fanzines became Fagin-like schools for apprentice writers and editors, while simultaneously spreading the criminal ethos.
And over the long term, sf’s crass vigour and gaudiness began to seep into the back-brain of culture at large. Young Californians nourished on sf became canny cinema moguls wielding megabuck budgets. Bestseller lists featured sf novels. The American President admitted that the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs had formed his moral paradigm. A population stunned by future shock found themselves surrounded by sf’s cultural icons: robots, computers, rockets.
Now sf finds itself on the brink of truly mass popular acceptance. The ghetto is becoming integrated. Tumbledown Ace duplexes are bulldozed and replaced with faceless shiny high-rise trilogies. Sf tribal elders are dusted off, shaved, and given creative writing posts, spots on TV talk shows, and high-tech research camps in Sri Lanka.
Sf has never faced a more serious and fundamental challenge.
As commercial endeavour, sf dates back to the early years of this century. It is not a high-tech industry. It is more like an old, family-owned firm, where goods are produced through sweatshop labour for a small but stable market.
Now the market has expanded vastly, yet the workforce is old, management is benighted and crooked, and the clientele has shiny new movies, videos, and computer games to play with. Bloated bookstore chains play havoc with distribution. Unit prices are rising. And the product itself is in dreadful straits: burned-out, floundering, feeding on cliches. A small gerontocracy of top-scale writers build 50s-style Cadillacs, heavy with chrome and fins, while low-scale writers, paid for piece work, produce hundreds of shabby pedal cars held together with chicken-wire and spit.
By and large, the industry’s reaction to new opportunity has been to pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. It has left the mass promulgation of sf to movies and rock videos.
The print medium is becoming dangerously obsolescent. Must we wait for the inevitable market crash? Should we barricade the ghetto, hope that sf’s core audience will become a modern Amish, quaintly outdated, insular, and ever more incestuous?
It can’t work. For sf to stop the clock is a grotesque exercise in self-contradiction. It can only provoke schizophrenia: a schizoid split already abundantly evident in the rise of fantasy. Fantasy is by nature timeless, insular, and traditionalist. It is the ne plus ultra of ghetto fiction; its alienation from the outside world is so severe that it approaches autism.
Sf, too, can become introverted, stale, self-absorbed. But then it is no longer a literature. For sf is not simply an industry. Despite everything, it is an art form. No amount of purely commercial reform, within marketing, publishing, or distribution, can redress a lack of artistic sincerity, creativity, and dedication. These matters are the domain of the individual writer. This is where the true power lies, because without the spark there is nothing.
Writers must do the re-thinking, the reforming, the re-tooling for this smoke-stack industry. They are the only ones who can do it. This challenge, this responsibility, belongs to young writers especially - the very people who feel most helpless, most inadequate, most powerless in the face of the Market.
But these feelings are wrong. The Market is a paper tiger. It has no creative powers - it can only reshuffle what is given to it. True power lies with the writers. And especially the young, because the renaissance of sf will be a long-term, painful effort, and today’s Golden Age doyens will be strumming celestial banjos long before the Revolution takes Jerusalem. By the time today’s newcomers reach a ripe age, everyone will be grinning and shuffling and saying it was all inevitable.
How, then, do we approach this seemingly quixotic effort at reform? What we need is a strategic vision. An organizing focus. A purpose.
We know the business we are already in: the business of supplying pop fiction to a specialized clique. But what business should we be in? Or, more pragmatically - what business would it be useful to us to think we are in? For the point is not to achieve some static utopia, but to adopt a strategic vision that will encourage steady artistic improvement every step of the way. What long-term Grail will produce the best pragmatic results?
It is this: We must create the native literature of a post-industrial society.
Note the two opposites. Literature. And technology. These are our parents, and despite our long history of neglect, our ungainliness, our taste-lessness, our numberless errors, financial, social, and artistic, we must unite them or perish in the attempt.
This is the natural birthright of our peculiar genre since the time of Gernsback. The gap between art and science is our natural habitat. We have made it a ghetto, but in reality it is a vast and unexplored territory.
The frightening implications of this gap were pointed out in Lord Snow’s analysis of the Two Cultures of Western society, the sciences and the humanities. Between these two powerful coteries there is a very real and cavernous gulf in our society, one fraught with very genuine peril.
The objective world-view of the sciences has no moral component. It will fry you or run your stereo, makes no difference. Yet mainstream literature has failed to come to terms with the modern epoch. The modern world is defined by its technology. And a literature that scorns and ignores technology is running blind. Those who cannot comprehend technology’s over-whelming influence are genuinely helpless. Mainstream literature reflects this helplessness, and the anomie that goes with it. Mainstream literature has become powerless.
Is it absurd to think that our feeble and monstrous genre could bridge the gap between these rival camps? Perhaps. But it makes good sense to try.
And perhaps this apparent absurdity is only a relic of sf’s parochial thinking. Science fiction writers are, after all, writers. „The unacknowledged legislators of the world.” H.G. Wells would approve; he thought social reform was the whole point of the effort. His high moral purpose is as much a part of our legacy as Gernsback’s adventurous scramble for a buck.
Are we to become Fabian socialists, then, and load our work with new expository lumps, this time for political ideology? No. Once again, our goal is the creation of a native literature for the society to come, a natural expression of 21st century culture, its human hopes, dreams, plans, potentials. A literature of reconciliation, at home in art galleries or genetics labs. A literature of integration and hope.
It will not be called science fiction. We might as well reconcile ourselves to that right now. It will be, simply, literature, and though it may involve sf themes, or future possibilities, or Stapledonian sweeps of high imagination, it will not be a genre product. It will be how things are done.
Whether this goal is attainable cannot yet be known. But let’s consider the implications of trying.
First, we remove at one sweep the long sense of inferiority that came from our bastard birth. We remove the sense of cheapness and worthlessness that limits our ambitions and prevents us from doing our best. For the New Science Fiction is not the semi-literate folk epics of a tiny coterie, but a fully legitimate art form, addressing the cultural needs of society at large. We fulfil a real and necessary cultural purpose, one that only we can address, and one that is firmly rooted in our own traditions.
And this is the second point. By opening our ghetto voluntarily, we bring a new strength to our work: the strength that comes from reforming our own weaknesses. The new viewpoint sheds light on that which is cramped, stale, and insular in our genre. Yet we do not disown or belittle our own heritage. We draw strength from it, we extend it, we bring it into the light of day.
Third, it turns our eyes once again to the future: the real future, implicit in today’s cultural, social, and technological movements. It encourages us to come to grips with genuine issues, to act as explorers, extrapolators, pathfinders for a society in dire need of hope and vision. It liberates us from a narrow and stifling role as purveyors of escapist froth. It brings us face to face with the larger audience outside our genre borders, and gives us the conceptual tools we need to attract and win that audience.
It’s now time to shift from long-term goals to strategic planning.
Let’s get real. Here you are, reading a fanzine from Puerto Rico. Perhaps you are a young, unsold writer. Or perhaps you are a stone fanzine-fan, who likes to read the occasional rocketship book in between bouts of character assassination and fan politics. In the first case, how can you, a quivering, mewling speck, who has never yet slept with an editor or given a publisher cocaine, hope to create something worthwhile? Or, in the second, how can you, rendered lame and blind by years of absorbing awful trash, hope to purge your liver of literary DDT and get hold of something real?
What, in short, is the New Science Fiction? How do you write it, how do you recognize it?
First, it is not the property of any editor, clique, publisher, or regional or national association. It is not a question of personal influence, creative writing classes, or apprenticeship to genre gurus. It is a question of approach, of technique. And these are its trademarks:
(1) Technological literacy, and a concern with genuine modern science as opposed to the hand-me-down pseudoscience guff of past decades.
(2) Imaginative concentration, in which extrapolations are thoroughly and originally worked out rather than patched together from previous notions.
(3) Visionary intensity, with a bold, no-holds-barred approach to sf’s mind-expanding potential.
(4) A global, 21st-century point of view, which is not bound by the assumptions of middle-aged, middle-class white American males.
(5) A fictional technique which takes the advances of the New Wave as already given, using the full range of literary craftsmanship, yet asserting the primacy of content over style and meaning over mannerism.
The New Science Fiction is a process, directed toward a goal. It is an artistic _movement _in the fullest sense of the word. It is the hard work of dedicated artists, who know their work is worthwhile, who treat it as such, and who push themselves to the limit in pursuit of excellence.
And it is for real.
(Interzone, Vol. 14 (Winter 1985/6), p. 39-40)
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