Science Fiction: The Critics and the Visions

by Tom Shippey

I'd like to begin by sayiong how very grateful I am to the committee and the members of NESFA for the invitation to come here as Special Guest. I've been to many conventions, and have been a keynote speaker at more academic conferences than I can remember, but this is the only time I've been a guest at a proper science fiction  convention, and I feel it as the high point of a life in SF.

A life in SF? Well, anyway, more than fifty years. I can recall perfectly well the moment of conversion. Some time early in 1958 I was sick with something or other, confined to bed, recovering, and bored stiff. My mother, in desperation, went down to the small local newsagent and bought whatever they had to read — and her hand fell on the January 1958 Astounding. It was the British edition, which corresponded to the US edition of September 1957, so it had the first part of the Citizen of the Galaxy serial. As soon as I could get up, I went and placed an order for Astounding for the future — soaking up a significant fraction of my allowance — and never stopped it or missed an issue subsequently. That year Citizen of the Galaxy was followed by Poul Anderson's The Man who Counts, and then by Hal Clement's Close to Critical, and then by Jack Vance's lead novelette "The Miracle Workers." It's notorious that the Golden Age of SF is when you're fourteen (which is what I was), but I still think that was an extraordinary year to start on. It certainly changed my life. One thing that happened was that a moderate and largely uninterested school career suddenly bucked up. My handwriting altered markedly, I've no idea why, and I started winning prizes — not for SF, since there weren't any for that, but it was as if something had switched on in my head, sparked by the intellectual curiosity which SF had suddenly created. So, since then, I can look back on fifty rewarding years on involvement with the field.

I also look back over forty years as an English professor, which have not been so rewarding. I would like to offer two statements in my own defence here. First, when I was a professor with a title, back in England, I was a Professor of English Language (not Literature). And Tolkien, if he were here, would tell you that in UK universities the job of a Professor of English Language is to fight the Professors of English Literature, which I always did to the very best of my ability and resources. Second, even that was an accident too, and SF may have had something to do with it. In my last year as an undergraduate reading English at Cambridge, my Moral Tutor for some reason came into my set of rooms — we did have Moral Tutors then — and noticed a pile of Astoundings I had left lying around isntead of carefully hiding them as usual. A few days later, and I don't think this was a coincidence, he told me he would not recommend me for graduate study because (I think his words were) "you didn't have it in you." I accepted this with outward stoicism and an inner urge to show the ******s, but duly set off to work for Colgate-Palmolive instead. This career was, however, cut short by the start of the long UK recession of 1964-82, when all the new graduates lost their jobs, and after a long period of odd jobs I got taken on as a kind of temporary adjunct teaching Old English and the like (at which I had specialised in Cambridge, as far as you could then), at the University of Birmingham.

I would never have got even such a low-level job in modern conditions, and I think it was caused by another purely adventitious circumstance. At the interview they asked me what I'd been doing at Colgate-Palmolive. "Marketing Ajax," I replied (it's a kind of powder for cleaning baths and toilets). "And what does Ajax do?" enquired one of the elderly interviewers. "Why, sir," I replied, doing my best to talk like someone out of the eighteenth century, "can you not see that it is for the scouring of a jakes?" (Jakes is a very old and disused word for a latrine.) This was such a smart-ass answer that I'm sure old Shapiro voted for me immediately, and when the only other likely candidate was discovered to have a criminal conviction, I got the job. Not with much job security! I still recall my fatherly old head of department, T.J.B. Spencer, putting an arm round my shoulder and saying kindly, "Tom, if you don't publish before your contract runs out, it will not be renewed."

Cheered on in this way, I started publishing academically with such speed and ferocity that I was was an Oxford Fellow at 29 — and they don't often give Oxford Fellowships to people from redbrick universities, especially ones with first degrees from Cambridge — and a full professor at 35. But all this publishing was about Old English. I kept the SF stuff, and the fantasy, pretty much under wraps till I had tenure and my own department. One thing I have passed on to the NESFA committee is a series of fifteen articles on SF and fantasy, published over the years, each one with a personal preface saying how it came to be written, and one of the main themes of these is the slow process of "outing" which I went through; while another is an increasing discontent with academic literary criticism.

However, I will now drop the professorial reflections for the moment, and go back to SF. My main question is, what did I (and we) get out of it, that we could get nowhere else? And I mean to consider that under three headings, like this:

  1. What triggered the appearance of SF? This goes back to my father's lifetime (1904-62).
  2. What visions has it produced in my own lifetime (born 1943, became aware of SF 1958)?
  3. And why do I feel, now, in 2010, a certain discontent — as if there's something missing, something I'm waiting for?

So, first, what triggered the appearance of SF — which I date, despite the many attempts to provide SF with a respectable earlier ancestry, to H.G. Wells and the 1890s ( I opened my Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories with Wells's "The Land Ironcalds," 1903)? And here I would like to ask the audience a question:

Do you remember the moment when you realised you were going to die? That this thing "death" applied to you? That there would be a time when you wouldn't be here?

I do. I can remember where I was when it hit me. I was on the verandah of the family flat in Alexandra Court, off Chowringhee Road, in Calcutta, so I must have been less than seven years old: for at seven it was the custom to send all Anglo-Indian children back to England, or in my case Scotland, to boarding-school. (And may I say that it was a proper boarding-school, not a cissy one like Hogwarts, where they go home for holidays. We were in the pen for 365 days a year, parental visits every three years.)  Anyway, I said something or other to indicate that I had realised about mortality, and I don't remember what I said, but I do remember what my father said. He said, "By the time you're grown up, I expect they'll have found the cure for that."

Now, he may just have been trying to reassure a little boy, but I don't think so. I think he meant it. And this was not unreasonable, if you consider what happened in his lifetime, 1904-62.

What I'm saying is that, in terms of life experience, that 50 years or so (call it 1900-55) was the one that saw the big changes.

Compare the next life-span, 1955-2010. What's happened there?

But my point is very simple. I think SF was set up and driven on by a unique experience of change, and a sense of potential change, which no-one in the Western world could avoid noticing, approximately 1900-1955. That's what made my father think death was next on the agenda to be cured. 1955-2010 hasn't been as dramatic, for the average person.

What about SF 1955-2010, and we're now talking about my approximate awareness lifespan? No-one can sum up all SF during this period in a few sentences, but in my introduction to the new NESFA Blish volume, Flights of Eagles, I argue that SF as a literary form has been collective, conventional, and assertive: and I mean all these adjectives approvingly, though I will only use the first on this occasion. Collective: what I mean is not that the authors wrote collectively, which of course they didn't, but that they set each other off, they argued with each other, the stuck sparks off each other. And they produced a number of collective VISIONS. I'd like to pick out just four of them.

  1. One of the earliest I noticed was the "disaster story." It was a very British mode, produced by Wyndham, John Christopher, Ballard, Charles Eric Maine, D.F. Jones etc., though it's continued to appear in works like Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer. Indeed it seem to be returning to popularity, as you can see in the last few years from Baxter's Ark, Atwood's Year of the Flood, Kim Stanley Robinson's "global warming" sequence, and the Day After Tomorrow movie.

    The early British ones, though, were clearly trigggered by two things. One was war: recent experience of it, and future threat of it. In Wyndham's Day of the Triffids the disaster is caused by two things, one being the blindness-creating rays generated by someone's military satellite, the other being the "triffids," the result of biological experimentation clearly identified as Russian. The other was Darwinism: it may seem strange to offer this as a proof, but as you read them you notice how funny they often are. There's a running joke (which goes back to Wells and War of the Worlds) on people, especially English people, who simply can't adapt. Generations of security have left them convinced the universe is a well-ordered garden, and that stasis is desirable and inevitable. Wyndham (who like Tolkien and me, went to King Edward's School, Birmingham, and was therefore liable to flash his foreign languages) summed up the point of two of his disaster novels with the words autres temps, autres moeurs — that was Triffids, and the point was that in the near-total blindness situation, polygmay was essential to breed as many sighted children as possible before the stores ran out; and in Midwich Cuckoos, si fueris Romae, Romani vivito more: "if in Rome, live as the Romans do." What that really meant was that if you live in a jungle (and even Midwich, in the middle of England, where nothing has happened for centuries, was in a universal context in a jungle), then you must live as the jungle does, ready to take drastic measures. Two things I would say for this particular collective vision are, first, they were good psychological preparation for an uncertain world, and second, they could have real-world political effects, as did Nevil Shute's On the Beach, written to attack the Mutual Assured Destruction policy.
  2. At about the same time, I was also aware of the developing "space vision." This was much more American, though one of its most influential exponents was another Englishman, Arthur C. Clarke. I certainly got it mostly from Clarke, whose books were fairly readily available in England, as American paperbacks back then weren't. I read Prelude to Space, Earthlight, The Sands of Mars, Islands in the Sky, The Other Side of the Sky etc. Sometimes I managed to pick up Heinlein's juveniles with similar themes, like Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky. I remember seeing his Tunnel to the Stars in a German translation while I was on an exchange trip in Germany, and asking if I could have that for Christmas, but they thought I was kidding, or possibly that all this reading was bad for a developing boy, and I got an alarm-clock instead.

    But in this vision I notice two contradictory elements. The first and more powerful was the built-in acceleration assumption (very natural, of course, back in the 1950s). Humans had gone very quickly from a top speed of 100 mph (trains) to 1000 mph (fighter jets) to 10,000 mph (rockets), and if you kept on extrapolating this, we'd have star travel in no time. And galactic empires, see Asimov's "Foundation" and Jim Schmitz's "Hub" and Jack Vance's "Oikumene" and all the others. The "sound barrier" had proved not be a barrier, the "light-speed barrier" — someone would figure a way round that soon enough… I'm sure we all remember the van Vogt story, where the first stellar explorers find themselves overtaken en route and get to Far Centaurus only to find it's long been settled. "How could we have forgotten human progress?"

    But against that there were the little goblin voices of doubt. Arthur Clarke expressed them earlier than anyone else I can remember, when in Childhood's End his star-travelling alien says kindly but firmly, "The stars are not for man." In Year 2018 James Blish made the same point: without anti-agathic drugs, and even with a "spindizzy drive," stellar distances are just too far. There were and are ways of getting round this in fiction, like the "warp-drive" and the idea of "generation starships." But the goblin voices have got steadily stronger, which repeats my point about the difference between 1900-55, and 1955-2010.

    In fact the "space vision" has come under severe threat, still continuing, well expressed by Jerry Pournelle, with his comment: "I read SF all through the fifties. I always knew I would see the first man walk on the Moon. I never dreamed I would see the last." So, briefly, during my active lifetime, expectations in this area have receded, not increased as they did in my father's.
  3. And so we got PSI, or as John Campbell called it, "psionics," trying by this coinage to link together the concepts of "psi" (the derivation of which is obscure) and "-onics" as in "electronics" — paranormal phenomena made reliable and workable. Arthur Clarke pioneered this as well, with Childhood's End showing humanity mutating into a new species of paranormals, but he was followed by a whole gallery of SF authors, often discovered and published by Campbell. Astounding was full of psi stories, often written under different pseudonyms by Randall Garrett, and then there was Blish's Jack of Eagles and Wilson Tucker's Wild Talent, and Bester's Demolished Man and Stars my Destination, and all the others. They made out a powerful and convincing argument. I spent ages in adolescence guessing card-symbols and scoring the results — and getting some very strange results, by the way — but I never got any better at it. Maybe there was and is something there, but we have no theory about it, and we haven't made any progress. This was another vision which established itself in popular consciousness, but got no further.
  4. Perhaps that is why cyberpunk, now a little more than 25 years old, made such an impact. It offered a quite new vision. This was in several ways depressing, and also has proved often to be wrong: we aren't worried about zaibatsus any more, the notion of fading governmental power is laughable, hackers aren't masters of the universe, and events like the dotcom collapse have shown that streetsmarts don't necessarily outweigh the power and resources of the suits. Still, it was plausible: perhaps especially (and in this way compensating for the failed vision of accelerating physical speed mentioned above) because it offered accelerating growth of information-flow, something which was and is actually happening. Cyberpunk is still going strong, see for instance Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which won the John Campbell Award for 2008.

    However, I'm surprised it hasn't led on to further things. I opened the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories with Wells's "Land Ironclads," but I closed it with David Brin's "Piecework," and also included Paul McAuley's "Karl and the Ogre," and that was deliberate. I thought that "biopunk" was the coming vision, having been impressed a while back by Charles Sheffield's "Proteus" sequence. I thought we were going to get SF capitalising on the other big breakthrough of my lifetime, which has been the DNA discovery. I haven't yet given up hope, and we do get stories like Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, but it seems to me that biopunk hasn't taken off the way cyberpunk did: it hasn't gone "collective" in the same way.

So, to get to my third question, of those listed above, what am I waiting for? Are we looking, as I've been suggesting, at a further slowdown? 1900-1955, 1955-2010, 2010 - ??. Many of us will remember the old Analog poster, a rocket, tied down by washing-lines, all of them festooned with diapers? Is that what's actually happened?

Brian Aldiss once told me that his idea of heaven was a big console up in the sky, where you could just sit, whisky in hand, and watch to see what happened next: always more unexpected and more interesting than anything you could think up for yourself. What should SF be predicting? There's global warming, of course: Brian also said that it was no good trying to make the Brits worry about global warming, they just thought about it for a bit and then said, "that's nice, I can put a peach tree on my back wall." To make their flesh creep you need to say, "Ice Age." Any damn fool can see (other than the British government, which sets global standards of damn foolery) that we've got an energy crisis coming, along with food / population / resources crises. None of these is insoluble, of course, but the big deficiency is in political will. Are our political structures capable of adapting?

Underlying all this, I'm sure many SF readers (though very few non-SF readers) must wonder whether we have missed our one cheap-energy window of opportunity, of moving to the Niven & Pournelle scenario of genuine habitats and serious industry in space. Do you remember the end of the Niven story, "At the Bottom of a Hole"? The dialog goes like this:

Young Guy: "There's everything in space. Monopoles. Metal. Vacuum … Free fall … Room to test things … A place to learn physics…"

Old Guy: "Was it all that obvious before we got here."

Young Guy: "Of course it was. [Then he realises how old the old guy is.] Wasn't it?"


No, it wasn't. Only to SF readers. And since Harry Truman, politicians haven't been SF readers, which is a great pity.

What SF needs to do, I think, is integrate politics with technology more credibly. It certainly can be done, see Fred Pohl's outstanding sequence Years of the City. And here's another dialog, this time from Iain Banks, in one of his non-Sf books:

"History is finished. Capitalist democracy has won and the rest is mopping up."

"Bullshit. You ought to read more science fiction. Nobody who reads science fiction comes out with this crap about the end of history."

Right on, Iain, the end of history would quite destroy our hope of consoles in the sky. To me, the question is whether capitalist democracy can cope with the long-term, when elections have to be won and the voters bribed and flattered and deceived every few years. Not much sign of it in the UK, as we sit waiting for the lights to go out as a result of the government's lack of an energy policy. And computers have done a great deal, but can they cope with the bureaucracy crisis? Not much sign of that either. So all that is why I wonder what the next SF vision is going to look like.

Which takes me back to life as an English professor. There too, I can't help thinking about the critical breakthroughs that never happened. When I was young, I thought we might get a better understanding of how narrative worked, following on the "structuralist" analyses of people like Vladimir Propp. What we got instead was "narratology," one of those inordinately complicated systems where you spend your time learning the rules and the terminology, but don't learn about anything outside the  system. I thought we might get the application of modern linguistics to studies of literary style. What we got instead was "rhet. and comp.," the bread-and-butter of US English departments, both learned and taught as a kind of rite de passage by reluctant undergrads and grad student adjuncts respectively, both eager to forget the whole thing as soon as ever they can. I thought we might get a serious analysis of genre fiction, brought into the mainstream of the educational system. What we got instead, from the Modern Language Association, was an overpowering interest in "victimology," organised by class, race and gender.

The critical trade did two things wrong. It set its face against any form of disciplined language study (which as a Professor of English Language I took pretty badly). And it turned its back on what people actually read, and while loudly proclaiming new freedom from "the canon," narrowed its interests even further (which as a trufan of SF I took even worse). As Darko Suvin pointed out long ago, with reference to critics and SF, any study which confines its interests to 10% of the available material will be wrong even about the 10% it condescends to define as "literature."

One result has been dead obvious. The US had 65,000 English majors in 1980. In the twenty years since then the student population doubled, so pro rata there ought to be have been 130,000 English majors at the start of this millennium. Actually there were 49,000, 37% of what there should be, and I bet the number has shrunk even further since. The other 63% have gone off to do something more worthwhile. As a former worker for Colgate-Palmolive, I am sure that any CEO of a business organisation which lost 63% of its market share would have been fired. But in the academic world they're all drawing fat salaries from Duke. There are exceptions to what I've said, and of course there is now quite a lot of SF criticism — though it hasn't made much impact on fans, and a lot of  the critics don't seem to know very much about the field. But the overall outlook for literary criticism and English Studies is not good. This is another area where expectations, over the last 50 years, have not been fulfilled.

And so I go back to wondering about SF. After more than 70 years of intense activity, there are now lots of plots and scenarios available, often being combined and rejigged. There has however been a drift towards fantasy. Some of it is very intelligent fantasy, and since he's here, I'd like to mention with particular admiration the work of Michael Swanwick. As an unregenerate Analog  reader I used to say, "never read a book with the word 'dragon' in the title," but after The Iron Dragon's Daughter I never said it again. He's up there with Vance and Tolkien on the top table, and if mainstream literary awards did not (see above) confine themselves wilfully to the 10% of literary production they define as "literature," he would have won them several times over, along with writers like Geoff Ryman and the late and much-regretted Tom Disch.

On the other hand, I do remember an SF author remarking pithily, when asked why he had switched from SF to fantasy — and here wild horses on their bended knees would not drag from me the name of the guilty party — "Quarter the work. Ten times the money." There's a lot of "alternate history" about too, and I'm as guilty as anyone, having written several along with Harry Harrison. But neither fantasy nor alternate history is what I'm looking for. I'm hoping for a new collective vision, like space or psi or cyberpunk.

Is the SF century over? I really hope not. But here I am, waiting for the next SF booster to fire, and bring us a new and convincing collective vision of the future. Thanks again to NESFA, its committee, and its members.