Everything Else

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.


16 Responses to “Everything Else”

  1. Sorry to have missed you! Do catch “Ken” f you can. The roadshow’s Sylvester McCoy was in the afternoon I went, quadrupling the ghosts. On the subject of forward-thinking you should definitely bung in some Le Guin. I’m currently reading The Dispossessed and folding over every third page. Big love.

  2. I have two of hers lined up. Have enjoyed some of her shorts and The Lathe of Heaven is terrific.

    Damn, why couldn’t you stay longer? Well, when we finally DO meet, it’s obviously meant to be an OCCASION.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Isn’t the head in the costume picture at the top recycled from THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE?

  4. I enjoy John M. Ford’s HEAT OF FUSION. I’d skip the poems, but a lot of his short stories do a good job of mixing compelling characters with fascinating concepts. Thomas Disch’s WALL OF AMERICA short story collection (which was published posthumously) is worth checking out (it’s even got some hopeful moments). Gene Wolfe is also great. THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR DEATH AND OTHER STORIES AND OTHER STORIES (no, that’s not a typo) is a good introduction to him, including two of my favorite stories, “Seven American Nights” and “Day of the Trust”.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    The two short-list masterpieces I tend to recommend, two novels, are Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and Pohl & Kornbluth’s THE SPACE MERCHANTS (both products of the 1950s). The most recent SF novel I got a kick out of was Charles Stross’s 2008 SATURN’S CHILDREN.

  6. I have a Stross! He lives here in Edinburgh, I believe.

    I think the Gorn is an original creation, any similarity to the star of Roy Del Ruth’s late masterwork a coincidence. Or perhaps a family resemblance.

    Am reading Bester short stories — Fondly Fahrenheit is good.

    Gene Wolfe has a story in one of my collections. I read the first of his Book of the New Sun series when it was new, but never followed it up.

  7. John Crowley. Not straightforwardly classifiable as a sci-fi author – he also toys with fantasy and history – but I think he found a home with a sci-fi publishing house. His best-known book (which I haven’t read) is called Little, Big, which is about fairies. The Aegypt Quartet is great.

  8. Container Smith wrote some of the most haunting stories in sc – fi history. There’s one called The Glory and the Crime of Commander Suzdal, which features, among other things:

    – Holographic companions to cope with the loneliness of space
    – Time travelling psychic cats
    – A planet of warrior hermaphrodites, driven mad by loneliness
    – A race of turtle men, whose sole purpose is to reproduce the next generation of workers, for the purpose of space travel

    The politics are somewhat iffy, but the ideas (and even prose – he’s not so much concerned with science, but builds a great culture), and his obsession with loneliness hits like a ton of bricks.

    There’s also a Planet Called Shayol, a penal colony devoted to experimentation with genetics.

    Any recommendations for films which aproximate Smith’s work?

  9. I love “Container Smith”! Autocorrect?

    Movies that do an extremely far future thing full of weirdness… Dune is maybe the top one. Barbarella? The Chronicles of Riddick seemed to be aiming for that, but I don’t think they had the strangeness, just the fancy clothes.

    Maybe in the realms of foreign animation? Miyazaki’s Nausica and Laloux’s Fantastic Planet…

  10. Whoops, hehe. Someone should write a great sci -fi novel on the linguistic implications of autocorrect (Damon Knight would be perfect!)

    Good call on Dune. There are also some Smith stories about a life extending spice, and a cabal of psychics…wait a minute….

  11. Simon Fraser Says:

    Have you read any Olaf Stapledon? Last and First Men. Starmaker. It’s as if sci fi started as big and possible and then worked back.

  12. Matthew Davis Says:

    Turning the internet upside and smacking it I get the following quote from Campbells 1996 “Violin Time, or The Lady from Montsegur”:

    Minsky’s terrific — if he’s wrong
    he’s the right kind of wrong: —
    he wears a fishing jacket and only reads Science Fiction —
    I don’t get it with regular literature —
    It’s been going on for thousands of years
    And it’s just people coming in and out of doors –
    Sometimes they go some place –
    Fall in love – kill someone
    It’s a very narrow spectrum –
    but Science Fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE

    There’s a quote on the internet attributed to Marvin Minsky: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.” So it looks as though Ken has Campbelled Minksy’s quote.

  13. Great, thanks! I ought to have searched that out, the paperback is on my nearest shelf.

  14. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley. The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad. Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison. Harlan Ellison’s Watching (impassioned film criticism) Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, filmed as Soylent Green.

  15. Have some of these, have read some… And just picked up an HG Wells collection, I’ve read ridiculously few of his.

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