Thursday, August 28, 2014

Science Fiction: Out Of The Gutter...Into The Dumpster?

     Way back when -- it was well before my time -- science fiction was trash.  Literally as well as figuratively: printed on cheap pulp paper in the form of cheap magazines, the physical artifact had a useful life measured in months.  Surviving examples are mostly faded to a deep tobacco brown and so brittle that each reading does observable damage.  Forrest J. Ackerman's archives were the single largest repository and (at least back then) he wasn't a scholar, just a driven geek with a powerful acquisitive urge.  Sure, there were talented writers as well as hacks; some very good writers worked in the pulp era and many of the best survived and went on to earn money -- a little, anyway -- and fame.

     By the time I was in grade school, SF (and its sibling, Fantasy) was on the way to a measure of respectability, helped along by Heinlein (and a very few others[1]) appearing in the "slicks," mass-market, mainstream fiction magazines modern readers would scarcely recognize (perhaps most notably, or at least most mainstream, the Saturday Evening Post, which offered readers a steady supply of never-banned-in-Boston fiction worth reading), a children's literature market that was chasing the baby boom, and a swelling college population that included plenty of kids who'd grown up reading the pulps.  Not all of them studied science or engineering; some of them were English majors.  Some of them stayed on.

     Fast-forward a few decades and you've got long-established college courses in SF and Fantasy -- and prestigious "collections," libraries of the very same material an earlier generation of academics despised.  Woo-hoo, happy days are here, the Jubilee has done arrived!

     ...Arrived and (hit that fast-forward button again, kid, willya?  What, you'll "just click farther ahead on the timeline?"  Uh, whatever)...turned into dull old stuff.  Turned back into trash.  That selfsame Sturgeon short that was hot, hot stuff in 1952 and still pretty snazzy in 1970 has been stripped of context by time; when a modern-day toiler in the Grove of Academe stumbles over the October, 1952 issue of Galaxy, all she sees is a collection of strangers, mostly male, all white and a good many of them smoking -- and she is more minded to prune than preserve.  Besides, e-books take up way less space and are a lot less likely to have suspicious-looking titles like If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister.[2]

     Something like that is happening right now (and to SF/F work by plenty of non-male, non-white non-smoking writers as well as Bradbury, Leiber and Heinlein) to the Eaton Collection at UC Riverside. Yes, that'd be the University of California, and if CA isn't safe for the crunchy mix of nuts, flakes, loose screws, strong sisters and swingin' swords that comprise (in some mad and sometimes mutually-antagonistic manner) the world of SF and Fantasy, the rest of us had better look the heck out.

     Consider joining in with your friends and (yes) those despicable weirdos over in some other corner, and pushin' back.  It's not so much about getting the love and respect of Lit-ratchure professors -- many of 'em they don't truly love anything that anybody else can parse -- as it is keeping our kewl junk from gettin' thrown out.

     Garbage pail to recycle bin within living memory?  Oh, let's not.
1. Writers who "colored outside the lines" helped, too; while Kurt Vonnegut explicitly rejected being identified as an SF writer and cited the contempt of critics as the reason why, Michael Crichton just wrote near-future and contemporary speculative fiction and ignored any crossover with the robots-and-spaceships crowd.  You can bet a goodly percentage of their readers went looking for "more stories like these" and found SF and Fantasy.

2. Which is not the Sturgeon short to which I refer.  You can hunt that one up for yourself; I left plenty of clues.


OldTexan said...

My older brother was an SF nut and he graduated from high school in 1952, went off to college and left me with a great big pile of crap that I learned to read. That along with all of the Action comic books that I wish we had saved instead of trading with other kids until they were worn out trash.

I also lived for the new Heinlein books and my teachers let me use some of them for book reports. Those were the good old days and my brother continued to pass on his books, a lot of the double paperback books where you turned the book over and had another great story. I think my brother who will turn 80 next month still has a lot of those books stuck away somewhere.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Did you ever get a chance to visit the Ackermansion? I did, in either 1980 or 1981, can't remember now which trip to LA it was. What an amazing place.

I met Forry at NorthAmericon in 1979, and like a good former AV geek, I set up his slide projector for him :) Ah, the small things we remember in our dotage :)

Vinnie said...

My father told me the story of "The Roads Must Roll" as a child. "More Than Human" was a paperback held together with a rubber band on the bookshelf. I never stood a chance.
My mother almost cried when I found a first edition of that. She and my father would read it to each other. They lived where there was no TV or radio.