Sunday, October 4, 2009

Science Fiction - Looking Back

Like virtually all people with my kind of gift, I was writing from childhood onward, entirely conscious both of the pleasure of this activity and the feeling that it was something I was meant to do: a calling, in other words. Later, when time came to carry this activity into the public square and I looked around, to be sure from a pretty shaded and obscure position in a vast jungle, the ant looking up into the canopies, the only visible markets for short fiction that I saw were romance, crime, and science fiction magazines—or general circulation periodicals that carried the occasional story in a genre. There was the New Yorker, to be sure. The Saturday Evening Post still published a little fiction. I also discovered other publications of either a modernistic or academic sort that published fiction of a peculiar flavor. Indeed I thought that the fiction in the New Yorker would also be described by that adjective: it had a certain audience and, in a way, it excluded large groupings of humanity by its very mannerisms and its sophistication. Yes, occasionally, I heard an authentic voice there too. I read what I saw about me or came my way by accident (but what others consider accident I sometimes see in quite another light).

Science fiction pleased me most because, oddly, it was the most general, the most inclusive. Under this narrow label, I discovered, lived all kinds of writers. The designation was often coupled with the word fantasy. There was—and I note that there still is—a magazine called Fantasy & Science Fiction. The stories ranged from hard to soft to transcendental. In a way it was a genre where you could say that “Everything goes,” and, indeed, everything went. Here, for instance—and this is a genuine random sample—is the first paragraph on a page of F&SF that I opened just now, at random, the magazine itself plucked, also at random, from a stack on the top of a tall bookcase in my attic. It happens to be a poem by R.A. Lafferty:
The handsome stranger cast his eye
On Shirley-girl and gave a sigh.
“Oh talk a while,” he said, “with I.”
She liked his noble knobby dome.
They dinnered at the Hippodrome.
She fell for him, she brought him home.
“Oh, mother see this guy of mine,”
She said. “He’s from a noble line.
His I.Q. soars to 9-9-9.”
And so on. An amusing poem with a cultural message, it turns out. Try to find that sort of thing back in those days, in the Saturday Evening Post. Long story short, I began to write short fiction and sent it to sci-fi magazines. Total failure. Then I went off to serve in the military, got married, had children. But I was still just a kid. The writing continued, but always in private. Then Brigitte said one day: “Stop writing those tomes and write something short. Try to get it published.” I was off on a trip the following morning, a very early start, like out of bed a 5 a.m., Boston bound. I started a story on the airplane, “A Splendid Freedom,” it was called. I wrote throughout the flight, throughout the flight home again, and I finished this novella later that week, at home, working at the ping pong table in the basement. I had no desk in the house. I sent this story to Galaxy magazine. I frankly expected exactly the same result I’d already experienced in high school and college—the rejection slip. Instead I got a letter of acceptance; and the editor, Jim Baen, added an invitation. He wondered if I’d written anything else—he said he’d like to see it if so. Lordy, lord, lord. Letter in hand I shyly approached Brigitte and said. “Well, dear, I think that was a pretty good suggestion…”

For the would be author—the kind for whom literature is a universe rather than a ladder into an enclave, a cosmos rather than a billboard, an atmosphere in which to breathe, a dimension in which to thrive—throughout the twentieth century, perhaps continuing to this day, science fiction, a genre entirely misnamed, a genre that outgrew its origins rapidly—with a hard-core of grumblers at its center who wished it would still be hard-core science fiction—was the homeland of the free.

One of the pleasing oddities of reality is that the really vital element refuses to be contained and suffocated by convention that, with equal ferocity, attempts always to fossilize around it. Real literature broke away from its encrustations somewhere along the line and made a new home for itself, indeed glorying in its tawdry reputation and laughing at the dour faces looking down from the proud tower of the past, the faces that dismissed it and did not deign to call it literature.

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