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Jack Williamson

{ n a v i g a t i o n   m e n u }

I'd like to comment tonight on some of the values of science fiction, especially as compared to the values offered in other types of imaginative literature.

The somewhat exciting success of such enterprising new book publishers as Fantasy Press and Arkham House, in rescuing fantastic fiction of all types from the pulp magazines and introducing it to an audience of book readers, is bringing a certain amount of critical attention to a field that has been almost entirely neglected.

While the reviews in the science fiction magazines have generally been intelligent and appreciative, I believe fantasy books still tend to be overlooked by the highbrow and upper middlebrow reviewers -- generally either lumped together with the whodunits or ignored altogether.

Among people interested in fantasy, there has been an endless and sometimes pretty bitter debate over the relative merits of science fiction and stories of the Weird Tales school. I haven't followed that argument very closely, and I don't want to get involved in it too deeply, although as a science fiction writer I'm naturally more interested in the case for science fiction.

While of course science fiction isn't anything new to the veteran fan, it does seem to be something strange and bewildering to a large part of the general public and to a good many book reviewers. I believe an effort is in order to restate the values of science fiction as clearly as possible, to work out a theory of criticism which can be applied to it, and to undertake some sort of educational campaign to tell the world what it's all about.

I believe that imaginative literature can be most profitably divided for discussion into the three more or less accepted categories -- tales of the supernatural, pure fantasy, and science fiction. In the magazine field, the three types are probably best represented by Weird Tales, the lamented Unknown, and Astounding Science Fiction.

Superficially, all three types are pretty much alike. They are all games of make-believe. The reader is invited to turn his back on literal reality, in order to accept some premise that he knows isn't strictly true. The remainder of the game consists in following that original premise out to its logical conclusion.

It seems to me that such a departure from reality involves a necessary sacrifice of certain literary values. For one thing, as Jack Chapman Miske pointed out in his able paper on "Characterization in Imaginative Literature," in the Spring 1949 issue of the Arkham Sampler, it limits the possibilities and importance of characterization.

Although that point had never occurred to me before I read his paper, it isn't hard to see. Any human being can be known only by his interactions with the world around him. He reflects the society which has made him what he is, and lives as a party of it. When you tear any character out of his real environment -- whether you do it by putting him in the thirtieth century or by setting him down in Alice's Wonderland or just by bringing him face to face with a ghost -- you can destroy him as an individual acting as part of any real world. His behavior becomes a sort of guessing game between writer and reader, because no further direct reference to reality is possible.

I don't mean of course to say that there are no vivid characterizations in imaginative literature. Certainly I don't want to offer any brief for the use of sloppy stereotypes. But I do agree that most characters in imaginative literature are idealized types or emblems of social forces in action or symbols of the hopes and desires of the writer and reader, rather than real individuals in their own right.

If characterization is really the chief aim of literature, it ought to follow that the greatest literature will be written about the people of a recent generation -- remote enough in time so that they and their world can be seen in full unprejudiced perspective, yet still near enough to be thoroughly known by both writer and reader. That proposition may be true. Science fiction stories aren't expected to reflect reality in the same way as Tolstoy's "War and Peace" does. But they do make up for that lack with other sorts of values.

The element of make-believe isn't really limited, of course, to imaginative literature. Any sort of fiction at all requires the reader to accept circumstances that he knows aren't literally factual. Any sort of art in fact, gets its value from being a representation, and not the original object or experience. That departure from the literal reality is what makes form and meaning possible in artistic expression.

Anyhow, that departure from reality is the reason for being of any sort of imaginative literature. Considering the three types again -- the supernatural, pure fantasy, and science fiction -- it seems to me that the most important difference between them is in the sort and degree of intellectual appeal.

The supernatural story is based on the beliefs of an age when the supernatural seemed natural. It was science fiction -- or perhaps something even more realistic than science fiction -- to people who actually accepted its premises. And it still has a certain strong appeal, even to those who consciously reject the premise that witches exist or magic works, because the old theories of magic and witchcraft grew out of the naive, intuitive conclusions about the nature of things that children reach almost as easily today as their savage forebears did. Most of us have to break habits of magical thinking as we grow up, and the symbolism of the supernatural still offers an expression to the impulses of the savage and the child who lives on in the unconscious after we are grown.

I'm not trying to deny the literary value of supernatural fiction in general; but since those values are determined in the mind of each reader for himself, and against a scale derived from his own experience and conception of reality, it seems to me that their defiance of accepted knowledge tends to keep them out of the highest brackets of literary worth -- at least in the estimation of educated readers in a scientific age. I'm sure their popular appeal is somewhat limited even now, and I should expect them to become less highly regarded as the old superstitions continue to die.

It does require a rather high order of craftsmanship to write acceptable stories of the supernatural, because it is necessary to create a mood that will suspend the ordinary intelligence of the reader, so that some degree of belief in the discarded science of the witch doctors can be restored temporarily.

The intellectual appeal of the supernatural story, I should say, is nil.

The "pure fantasy" is in a different category. It's more frankly make-believe. The writer sets up conditions which are admittedly contrary to fact. The reader accepts them in the same spirit, for the sake of taking part in a sort of intellectual game. The writer is in turn bound to play fair, by not violating those initial premises, while he attempts to surprise the reader with the conclusion to which they logically lead.

As such a game, pure fantasy is delightful. The only pity is that a great many readers are too much preoccupied with reality to be interested in playing. John Campbell's UNKNOWN was the only effort I know of to edit a magazine devoted frankly and entirely to pure fantasy. I'm sorry that it didn't find a larger public.

Science fiction, as I see it, follows a different method, which allows the reader to take a more serious -- or perhaps a less sophisticated -- intellectual interest. Reality is neither denied nor ignored, but rather projected on imaginative screens. The general method, it seems to me, is the extrapolation of trends and the extension of possibilities, into future times and other worlds.

The basic premise underlying a great deal of science fiction is simply that scientific progress will keep on. Interested in the swift march of science, the reader meets no violation of his sense of reality when he joins in testing some possible new gadget and surveying its dramatic human consequences.

This method of projection isn't limited, of course, to the physical sciences alone. When the sociologist or the historian or the philosopher discovers a pattern in the past, or a trend in the present, or a new equation linking man and his world, the writer and the reader share a legitimate intellectual interest in what will happen if that trend goes on, or if that pattern is repeated in a different future setting, or if the terms of that equation change.

The difference in intellectual appeal, I think, is the basic distinction between the several kinds of imaginative literature, but I don't want to seem dogmatic about it. After all, the lines aren't clearly drawn. Many stories of the supernatural make some use of scientific or pseudo-scientific trappings. The writer of a pure fantasy is free to take either science or superstition, or a mixture of both, for his raw material. I suppose that many stories of the supernatural are read as pure fantasy by readers too sophisticated to feel much terror over any pictured contravention of nature by the forces of evil, and many science fiction stories taken as fantasy, by readers unwilling to accept the premises elaborated.

But even in view of the great difference readers make in their estimates of what is possible, I still believe that the feeling of possibility is the essential thing in a science fiction story. Looking back to the enormous thrill I got out of the first science fiction stories I read, it seems to me that the sense of projected reality was an important part of the experience, and I know that I used to feel highly offended by violations of it.

In the early days of Amazing Stories and the old Wonder Stories, Hugo Gernsbach, who launched them both, used to make quite a point of the educational and prophetic nature of science fiction. Perhaps his claims went too far. While a certain amount of true science can be found in science fiction, any textbook is a richer and more reliable source. Although some of the prophecies of science fiction do come true, many more don't. Yet I feel that his point was sound, because it emphasized that element of possibility.

I believe that this method of science fiction can be fairly described as a sort of time machine, which can transport writer and reader, not to one future alone, but to any number of alternate future times and worlds of If -- keeping them always in contact with solid reality, through that vital thread of possibility which must never be broken.

In stressing this primary element of interest in the logical working out of an idea, I don't want to minimize the importance of plot and conflict and emotional values, which create the illusion of reality, and hold the focus of interest on the evolution and dramatic consequences of the idea.

Most great science fiction stories, from "Gulliver's Travels" on, have served as vehicles for the satiric exaggeration of human imperfections or for Utopian plans for a better world, but the writer has made a blunder whenever he attempts to play up his thematic ideas at the expense of story values.

The work of H.G. Wells is the classic illustration of that peril. In his earlier and more readable stories, the ideas are allowed to work themselves out dramatically, through the story action, while in many of his later books the socialistic preaching was allowed to crowd out the story values, so that the feeling of possibility was destroyed and the writer's whole purpose defeated.

That's a problem of integration. While the characters and plot may have been selected in the first place to illustrate some thematic idea, in the finished story it ought to seem the other way around -- that the story itself is the important thing, from which the theme follows inevitable but also incidentally.

This intellectual interest in scientific possibilities, examined in the light of all their logical consequences, seems to me, what makes science fiction exciting and worthwhile.

I won't undertake to claim that it's anything better than the more pretentious literary values offered in other types of fiction. After all, one man's literary meat can be a pretty dull dish to another. Considering the uses to which such discoveries as the atomic chain reaction are being put, you can't blame people who prefer to ignore such uncomfortable possibilities so long as they can.

I am very happy, however, about the increasingly wide and alert interest in science fiction, and I feel that writers and publishers can extend the field still further, by offering books which are really worth serious interest.

{ t o p   o f   p a g e }

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