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Singularity | Commentary

Media franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons have brought millions of new fans to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. But has the field paid a price for its widespread popularity?

From the Heart's Basement by Barry N. Malzberg

Years ago — between the time I delivered Engines of the Night and wrote seven “From the Heart’s Basement” columns for Pulphouse — my mind was full of odd and original ideas; throbbed and pulsated like one of A. E. van Vogt’s Weapon Makers, with paradox and possibility. Science fiction as the middle class revenge on working class fascism, science fiction not as sexual sublimation but as sexual archetype, science fiction as profoundly anti-technological at its heart, Horace Gold as a figurehead for anti-Freudians trying to prove the Master’s obsessions ridiculous, and so on. Some of those ideas I attempted to develop, others I repressed, some were the focus of obsession, some (like shattering the divisions amongst all genres everywhere) caused me to pulse, however occasionally, with Zionist zeal.

Ideas, like little animals, clawed at me, ideas like termites in the mind’s decaying mansion scuttled away. I had, perhaps, forgotten Jack Woodford’s important dictum, which I paraphrase: “Early in his career, the new writer is seized by odd and interesting ideas which he has never seen in print and which he therefore thinks will find a ready and eager market. Unfortunately, the newcomer has not yet understood that these ideas are not absent from print because they are original. They are absent because they are taboo.” Also, I confused the public interest in the convolutions of obsession with my own, not a rare error among Sacristans, censors, or the B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League but a dangerous one for me.

Fortunately enough, Engines of the Night fell out of print in both of its editions, Pulphouse decided that death probably was, as Jesus said, laden with more possibilities than life and I embraced the medical and emotional distractions of middle-age ever more fervently. My mind, once so occupied by so much, seemed to be reduced to the binary — yes/no, in/out, up/down, life/death, cough/release, done/undone — and contracted, when it considered issues of speculation at all, to one idea which was perhaps the frozen, miniaturized summation of them all: the field of speculative fiction as wholly atomized. No more center, no common language, no shared history or lexicon. Once, single-track convention programming and paperback publishing programs of four titles a month had created a concentration of dialogue, reference, and understanding; now Star Trek and Star Wars and the Internet, costume fandom and masquerade fandom and weapons fandom have all become symptomatology of a field which has been blown apart. No real backlist, no accessibility of shared history, no interest in fact in that history. Clifford D. Simak out of print, Theodore Sturgeon (almost entirely) out of print, Frank Belknap Long, Van Vogt, Winston K. Marks, Wyman Guin, Judith Merrill anthologies, almost all of it gone. Frontlist has become 80% fantasy and/or media-related science fiction. The raft of awards — Tiptree, Nebula, Hugo; Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle, Compton Crook; John W. Campbell, John W. Campbell Memorial, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial; British Science Fiction, Ditmar, Aurora; First Fandom Hall of Fame, Forrest J. Ackerman Big Heart, Homer — all signifying not so much judgment as confusion, a series of attempts to impose a new set of standards because the old standards failed to work for this group or that. Science fiction taught in universities, 750 science fiction conventions a year, Millennial Women, Callahan’s Saloon, Isaac’s World, Isaac’s Robots, and an audience, 50% of whom could not name a short story or novel by John W. Campbell and might be pressed to say who the hell Campbell was. I realize that I am, perhaps, raving.

I also realize that the concept of atomization, of fragmentation, of utter separation from any kind of common history (assuming that there is a real common history as opposed to a series of jokes, references — Courtney’s Boat, Degler’s Tour, Fans Are Slans, Room 770 — which in the tradition of catch-phrases obliterate rather than encourage communication) is hardly confined to science fiction; everything is atomized: post-expansion baseball, the international trading markets, singles bars of all persuasions, film festivals. So much of this may be thinking which simulates thinking, the substitution of one definition or perception for another, the reinvestigation of the familiar through another lens. It’s an old trick — “turn things upside down, let’s look at wealth as poverty for instance,” Galaxy editor Horace Gold said in 1953, trying to get any one of a bunch of writers to attempt what eventually became Frederik Pohl’s poisonous classic story, “The Midas Plague” (April 1954, Galaxy) — and when applied mechanically leads only to the glib extinguishment of real consideration.

Still, think of The Truman Show. If the community and history of science fiction were not scattered through a thousand Tolkien retreads, a hundred and fifty Star Trek and X-Files knockoffs, would this cold and hermetic little film based upon a familiar and traditional science fiction idea (Robert Sheckley’s Prize of Peril, Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, Michaelmas by A. J. Budrys, Fred Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World”) have had its apparent impact? We are perhaps in a circumstance now where not only 98% of the audience for this film is unaware that it is science fiction, more than 90% of people claiming knowledge of the genre might not be aware of this either.

All right: let’s imagine a circumstance in which The Truman Show is generally perceived as science fiction and is the subject of a large panel at the Bucconeer World SF Convention in Baltimore in August 1998. Here are Budrys, Pohl and Sheckley modestly accepting their Big Heart Forrest Ackerman Awards for prescience and contribution to derivative outcome. Better? Worse? All the same? In the heart’s basement it is always the same, of course, but decor was supposed to count.

Or another of those odd and wonderful ideas of old times: perhaps poor old science fiction was created to engage the very process which took it apart.

Born to fall apart, born to run. Born to gleaming peril in the asepsis of this new and shining time.

July 1998: New York


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Copyright © 1998 by Barry N. Malzberg and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.