The state of science fiction, circa 1954

I’m reading The Omnibus of Science Fiction, an anthology edited by Groff Conklin, first published in 1954 and reprinted in 1980.

The 1980 edition has a 1-page foreword by R. Scott Latham. I like this line from that: “We came to science fiction, not to escape what we were, but to explore what we might become” (including both positive and negative ideas about that). (…There are lots of other reasons to come to science fiction too; I just liked that framing of one aspect.)

But I was amused by this later line of Latham’s:

“The growth of the field [in the late 1940s and early 1950s] liberated reader, writer, and publisher, and all things became possible. No concept was taboo, no style too experimental, not notion to perilous to explore.”

It may well have felt that way to readers at the time, but there was a whole lot that was off-limits in science fiction at that time. That line reads to me more like an introduction to Dangerous Visions (1967) than to an anthology collecting works published from 1927 through 1952.

I also wanted to quote some bits of the original 1954 introduction (by Groff Conklin):

  • He notes that from 1946 through 1954, “an average of six” sf anthologies were published each year; “something of a record, I am sure.” (I’m not saying it wasn’t a record at the time; I’m just noticing how much the sf publishing industry has expanded in the 70 years since then.)
  • “one of the astonishing things about the typical science fiction author is his loyalty to his friends, even when they become editors of terrible magazines!”
  • “a great many top-grade science fiction writers are completely unable to operate themselves efficiently from the business point of view; they will sometimes turn over their best work to the first comer”
  • “This helplessness on the part of the writer, this inability to deal with the economic world with any degree of instinct for survival, has brought about another special, though minor, phenomenon in the publishing field—the agent specializing in science fiction and fantasy. As recently as five years ago only one or at most two literary agents could be said to have made science fiction a specialty; and they were not doing too well. Today there are five or six[…]”
  • “Profundity of character analysis, depth of observation and sharpness of social insight are not necessarily the major qualities for which science fiction is famous; I for one object to the analyses of those who try to apply to science fiction the same standards they would apply to James Joyce or Thomas Mann or William Faulkner. But if one reads it for sheer intellectual-imaginative fun, for often very sharp satiric comment, for a kind of mind-stretching flight above the humdrum, the crass, the workaday—in other words, for escape from the dullness and boredom of life—science fiction is just about what the doctor ordered.” (Interesting contrast with Latham’s 1980 intro that says it’s not just escapism.)

And finally, a line that I enjoyed more when I truncated it and took it out of context:

“What we do claim, we confirmed science fiction lovers, is that this type of fiction, when well done, is particularly attractive because it is so gay”

(The full phrase is “it is so gay with the Idea.” I’m not totally certain what that means, but given the context, I think it means something like “playful with ideas.”)

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