Science Fiction

Science Fiction: In Conclusion


Is anybody out there? Oh, I know at least 30,000 people read REASON. And they're interested in all sorts of subjects.

Important things, too—from libertarian psychology and political philosophy to how to fight fires for profit and what to do about prostitution. I wish we had 10 or 100 times as many people reading about these topics—it might turn this country around.

But are there any science fiction fans out there? The editor must be one, or I wouldn't have started this column. And once in a blue moon, I do get a letter. Nothing worth printing in the REASON letter column in any case.

Does "Science Fiction in Perspective" even compete in reader popularity with the lust-lorn personal columns? I don't know. But I'd like to hope science fiction itself could have broad appeal among libertarians—after all, it's the most liberated fiction going, even when it isn't devoted explicitly to The Message.

There are two classes of REASON readers, I suppose, who aren't reading science fiction. First, there are those who don't know what it is, and couldn't care less. They are apathetic. In a time like this, it isn't a good idea to be apathetic about anything, but apathy is admittedly hard to cure. Second, there are the people who think they know what science fiction is—and can't stand it.

Terry Carr once edited an anthology for this second group: Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction. It was a pretty good anthology too, although whether it converted anybody is open to question. In the most recent columns, I've been dwelling on specific authors and books—sure-fire recommendations for people who don't hate science fiction and may feel at least a stirring of interest in it.

Maybe it's easier to hate science fiction nowadays than it used to be. There's so much junk coming out (Sturgeon's Law says 90 percent of everything, including SF, is crap): Perry Rhodan, a series called Laser Books put out by a schlock editor named Roger Elwood, novelizations of Space 1999, and other abominations. If any of you have picked these up and been disgusted, I can't blame you. But if you've judged science fiction by them, you've been had.

As it happens, I can offer some antidotes. I can't guarantee you'll enjoy them, but I can guarantee that if you don't, you won't enjoy any science fiction and at least won't have to worry about having misjudged the field.

First, is the Science Fiction Hall of Fame series. These volumes were originally published in hardcover by Doubleday, but forget about hardcover prices—if the Avon paperback editions aren't in stock at your chain bookstore outlet now, further printings soon will be.

The Hall of Fame books contain short stories, novelettes and novellas voted the best of all time by the 400-member Science Fiction Writers of America, through 1964 (the year the SFWA was founded and started giving out annual awards). All the top writers are represented, from H.G. Wells through Stanley G. Weinbaum and Murray Leinster to such still-active figures as Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Clifford D. Simak, Algis Budrys and Roger Zelazny. I'm not going to review any of the entries here—just promise you that they are representative of the best science fiction had to offer for the period covered.

For a look at the best of contemporary SF short fiction, there are the best-of-the-year anthologies. A word of warning: don't buy any edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. Although they're veteran SF writers, they have such an inferiority complex about the field that they have made it their aim for the last 10 or 15 years to try to change it into something else—something else being a minor element in the "avant-garde" fiction of "little" magazines.

Terry Carr, whose "best" series is published in paperback by Ballantine Books, and Donald A. Wollheim, who has his own publishing house, DAW Books, are safe bets, however—if you don't find anything to like in their anthologies, you won't like science fiction at all.

Steering you to the annual "best" anthologies is deliberate. Short-fiction in the SF field has suffered in recent years, partly because of market factors, partly because of ill-advised editorial standards. The quality of fiction in the average SF magazine or original anthology nowadays tends to be uneven at best.

Two kinds of editors are contributing to the situation. The first kind, represented by Damon Knight (Orbit), wants SF to be part of the avant-garde and tailors his anthologies after New American Review. His anthologies do print good SF stories—but mostly contain mediocre avant-garde material, or fiction that may be good but is only vaguely related to SF. The second type, represented by Elwood, buys manuscripts by the truckload and wouldn't know a good SF story if he fell over it—anything to fill an anthology will do, as long as it isn't "obscene" or "anti-religious." Between the Knights and the Elwoods, few if any original anthologies represent science fiction at its best.

There are occasional exceptions: Ben Bova's Analog Annual (Paperback Library), for example. This isn't an issue of the magazine, but a one-shot paperback with better material than has gone into any single issue of the magazine lately. Terry Carr's Universe is often good—but often not.

Good novels are easier to find, and since all the good ones come out in paperback sooner or later, you don't have to break the bank to sample them.

Over the past year or so, this column has reported on some of the contemporary novels that are already becoming classics—Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, and so on.

Some other recent examples that represent SF at its best but haven't become as famous as the LeGuin and Niven-Pournelle entries include:

Walk to the End of the World, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Ballantine). Don't let the fact that it's a post-ecological disaster novel with a strong feminist slant put you off: even male readers should respond to the strong characterization and world-creation in this first novel.

The Warriors of Dawn, by M.A. Foster (DAW). This is a space opera—but not the wild-and-woolly kind made famous by E.E. Smith. It's literate and moving, and Foster (a male writer and an Air Force colonel at that) handles his male and (mutated) female protagonists with as much sensitivity and insight as LeGuin.

Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper (Ace). Not really new, but out of print so long it might as well be. Piper's hero is a prospector on the planet Zarathustra who fights for the rights of a newly-discovered alien race—the intelligence of which powers-that-be refuse to recognize for reasons political and economic.

The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee (DAW). An epic heroic saga of the traditional sort, save that the protagonist is a woman (as is Lee, a British writer whose first novel this is). More than twice the length of the average SF novel, it has room to explore in depth both the heroine and the strange world she inhabits.

Farthest Star, by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson (Ballantine). This is space opera of a more traditional sort, by two old hands at the form. You have to have a taste for the incredible: people who create "duplicates" of themselves, a "world" as vast as a galaxy and aliens galore.

Tastes in SF vary—not all SF fans enjoy all of the above. But if you don't enjoy any of them, then the genre probably isn't for you. These works are science fiction—not the atrocities you see on television, or UFO "I've been" stories in the National Enquirer, or Erich von Daniken's insanities, or any piece of crap that happens to be dumped on the "science fiction" rack of your local bookstore.

There isn't much fiction around that can be both thoughtful and entertaining. If you think you know what science fiction is, or think you don't want to know—check your premises (fine old libertarian slogan, that). You might discover you've been missing something.

This column marks John J. Pierce's last regular appearance in REASON's pages. He will return with occasional reviews of noteworthy SF books. Next month REASON will inaugurate a new Washington column in place of the science fiction column, which ranked last in a survey of reader interest.