Science Fiction is Not Evenly Distributed

I’m over at Galactic Journey and back in 1964 again today, where I review Edmond Hamilton’s science fantasy adventure The Valley of Creation as part of Galactic Journey‘s “Galactoscope” feature along with reviews of Outside the Universe, also by Edmond Hamilton and Escape Across the Cosmos by Gardner Fox, both reviewed by Jason Sacks.

The Valley of Creation, which is an expanded and revised version of a short novel first published in Startling Stories in 1948, offers yet more evidence that the so-called Golden Age of science fiction was more diverse than is generally assumed, because the protagonist Eric Nelson is a member of a multiethnic and multiracial mercenary crew, which includes a black and an Asian man. Okay, so the black character is the main villain, but the Chinese mercenary is portrayed as a thoroughly sympathetic character and that in a genre that was still very much beset by racist Yellow Peril rhetoric. Furthermore, the novel is not just a cracking good science fiction adventure, but it also has a message that may either be interpreted as a plea for animal rights or – in one of those X-Men style analogies our genre loves so much – an analogy for racial equality among humans, which protagonist Eric Nelson considers completely normal by the way.

Yes, here we have the dreaded message fiction, written in 1948 or respectively 1964 by Edmond Hamilton who was very definitely not a social justice warrior. In fact, I have some problems reconciling the Leigh Brackett who wrote “The Citadel of Lost Ships” and whose husband wrote The Valley of Creation in the 1940s with the Leigh Brackett who wrote about evil space hippies and evil space welfare states in the Skaith Trilogy in the 1970s. Did the same rightwing braineating virus that ate Robert A. Heinlein’s brain sometime in the late 1950s also infect Leigh Brackett or what?

In fact, one thing I’ve noticed both reading for the 2019 Hugos and 1944 Retro Hugos and writing reviews for Galactic Journey is that science fiction, like the future, is not evenly distributed. Because there always are older tropes and subgenres existing alongside whichever tropes and subgenres are currently fashionable. For example, Galactic Journey has currently reached the first stirrings of what will eventually become known as the New Wave. But even as early examples of New Wave stories pop up in the various magazines and Michal Moorcock jut took over editing New Worlds, there are also a lot of stories which feel like they date from the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s or even earlier. The Valley of Creation is actually a good example here. It’s a 1960s edition of a 1940s story with a progressive message, but also an example of a “lost world” story, a trope which goes back to the late nineteenth century and was largely extinct by the 1930s. In fact, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, published in 1933, of which The Valley of Creation is highly reminiscent, was the last hurray of the “lost world” subgenre.

You also find the same mishmash of older and newer styles on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. Take, for example, the five Retro Hugo finalists written, either together or separately, by the duo of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Of these five stories, Kuttner’s solo story “The Proud Robot” feels the most like a golden age story. Meanwhile, the collaborations “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” and “Clash by Night” feel more modern. In fact, if you removed some overtly 1940s trappings, “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” would not feel out of place in a contemporary science fiction magazine and “Clash by Night” would easily be at home in Baen Books’ military science fiction line. On the other hand, C.L. Moore’s solo story “Doorway into Time” feels like something that might have appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930s. And while the collaborative novel Earth’s Last Citadel does start out in WWII, before heading into the far future, and treats its two Nazi spy characters with more sympathy than might have been expected at the height of WWII (only one groan-inducing paragraph in 40000 words), the bulk of the novel feels much older and in fact feels reminiscent of the late Victorian scientific romances of the turn of the century. The “waking up in the future” trope, the desolate and dying Earth of the far future, the Eloi-like childlike and decandent far future humans and their Morlock-like antagonists, all this is straight from H.G. Wells, particularly The Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes. And yes, Buck Rogers also did the “waking up in the future” thing – and Buck Rogers actually is nominated in the best graphic story categories for the 1944 Retro Hugos – but Buck and his creator Philip Nolan stole the idea from Wells and ran with it.

While the Kuttner/Moore stories run the gamut from “old-fashioned” via “of its time” to “remarkably modern”, the three Fritz Leiber stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot all seem remarkably fresh for stories from the 1940s. This isn’t unexpected for “Thieves’ House”, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novelette on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, because secondary world fantasy is more timeless than science fiction anyway and besides the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were published over a span of almost fifty years and “Thieves’ House” is referenced both in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, the 1969 origin story for the duo, and in “The Mouser Goes Below”, the very last Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story ever published.

However, I was surprised by how fresh the two novels Gather, Darkness and Conjure Wife still feel. Gather, Darkness does use the popular golden age trope of “science passed off as religion to dupe the masses”, which shows up in many stories of the 1940s, including the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. But Gather, Darkness is a unique take on the trope, a religion satire where the witches/Satanists are the good guys. Conjure Wife, meanwhile, is an early example of what we know call urban fantasy. It’s not the only one from that era – contemporary fantasy was very much a thing during the 1930s and 1940s and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories from Weird Tales as well as much of what John W. Campbell published in Unknown was proto urban fantasy. But while the Jules de Grandin stories often feel very Victorian, Conjure Wife is a lot more modern. The edition I own has a very 1980s horror cover. Other editions of Conjure Wife feature a classic “woman in nightgown running away from sinister mansion” gothic romance cover, a sixtiestastic psychedelic cover and, for the most recent edition, a Chris McGrath urban fantasy cover. And the novel can be all this and more. John O’Neill has an article about the many different covers of Conjure Wife at Black Gate and how they show both changing tastes in genres and cover design as well as how the view of women evolved over the past 76 years.

It is a well known fact that science fiction and to a lesser degree fantasy both build on what has come before, that authors mix and match, reuse and adapt the tropes and ideas of older SFF. And so, older and newer styles and subgenres exist alongside each other, printed in the same magazines and sitting on the same bookshelves. This is also why the demands from certain quarters that science fiction return to some mythical golden age which never existed and ditch all newer ideas are misguided, just as the complaints from a completely different quarters about overly “nostalgic” science fiction, which does not contain enough new ideas, are misguided as well. Because our genre has always looked into the past as well as the present and the future. And occasionally, you get a novel like Conjure Wife, which manages to transcend the time it was written in and seamlessly fit into multiple subgenres or genre fashions.

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