Alfred Bester, Clifford Simak, E.E. 'Doc' Smith, F. Orlin Tremaine, Frederik Pohl, Ian Sales, Isaac Asimov, John W. Campbell, L. Ron Hubbard, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Ted Chiang, Theodore Sturgeon, Thomas M. Disch, Tom Godwin, Ursula K. Le Guin
In 1937, John Wood Campbell, Jr, who had held a variety of dead-end jobs up to that point, was hired as an assistant editor at Street & Smith working on Astounding. Within the year, the then editor of Astounding, F. Orlin Tremaine, moved up in the Street & Smith hierarchy and Campbell, with next to no editorial experience, found himself running the magazine, which he continued to do for the next several decades.
Campbell was a reasonably proficient writer of ‘superscience’ stories, the sort of over-the-top extravaganzas that had come to dominate pulp science fiction in the 20s and 30s; but he achieved more under the pseudonym ‘Don A. Stuart’ with stories that were rather more restrained in their invention and melancholy in their affect. When he took on the editorial role at Astounding, he stopped writing; that creativity was instead channelled into the ideas he fed to his favoured stable of writers. One of the peculiarities of Campbell’s editorship of Astounding, at least during his first decade or so in that role (you don’t hear these stories attached to the magazine by the time he was changing its name to Analog), was the extent to which he fed ideas to his authors. I am sure any editor worth their salt is likely to suggest an idea to an author now and then, but the mythology attached to Campbell would have us believe that most of the great stories that appeared in Astounding during its heyday came directly from Campbell himself. And there is enough commonality in these stories, enough sense that they are the children of Don A. Stuart, to lend some credence to the myth.
Thus was born what has been variously termed ‘golden age’ and ‘modern’ science fiction. That is, when we come down to it, science fiction in the Campbellian mode.
As I understand it, Astounding was never the best paying nor the best selling of the sf magazines, but it was certainly the most prestigious. It published the writers who attracted attention, the writers who were most likely to be copied. It wasn’t the only form of sf available, and when new magazines like Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction began to appear in the early 1950s, they were deliberately tailored to run counter to the Astounding model, and easily attracted great writers that Campbell had never published. Nevertheless, for ten formative years Astounding set the agenda not only for what sf did but, more importantly, for what it was perceived to do. It is an agenda that, for many people, seems to hold true today.
The Campbellian mode was quite varied and not always consistent. We must remember that he began a well-thought-of fantasy magazine, Unknown, until it was killed by wartime paper shortages (though he made no effort to repeat the experiment in the long decades after). He was enamoured of psi, and pushed psi stories as often as he could in the magazine. He continued to publish superscience sf by the likes of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. And probably the most successful author that he had at the beginning of his tenure was L. Ron Hubbard, and Campbell encouraged and supported the ideas that would grow into Dianetics. So we should note that Campbellian sf was not always as rigorous or as hard as we often think of it. Nevertheless, the dominant mode of sf story under his editorial regime followed certain strict rules that he laid down. Mostly this came down to the fact that in any confrontation with the alien, then men (always men) must come out ahead; that the ingenuity and technical ability of men must be lauded in dealing with the intractability of nature; and the laws of nature, in so far as they were then understood, must be paramount. Other than the explicit chauvinism of the rule that humans must always be superior to aliens (and we should remember that at this time the humans in these stories were practically always white, male and American, whereas aliens were often distinguished by their different colour), there isn’t much to take exception to when you consider the rules in outline like this. Moreover, there were any number of stories he published that contradicted these dictates, but they formed the predominant model followed by most of the stories published under Campbell’s regime. In fact they became more rigidly applied over time as writers worked to fit into what they perceived as Campbell’s editorial requirements. Most of the Astounding stories from this period that have stood the test of time fit this pattern.
This pattern defines what I have tended to call ‘hard sf’. I put quote marks around the term simply because there is no more agreement about what constitutes hard sf than there is about what constitutes science fiction. I have seen different people refer to exactly the same story as both archetypal hard sf and not at all hard sf. So, for the sake of clarity, when I refer to hard sf I mean a subset of science fiction that typically emerged in the magazine Astounding during the first decade of John W. Campbell, Jr’s editorship and that continued to echo through science fiction over the succeeding decades. As with any echo, it grew more tenuous the longer it went on; but there was a revival of the form, the so-called ‘new hard sf’, that emerged during the 1990s, though I remain dubious about how closely this new form followed the original model. There is a sense, probably because of the association with Astounding and with Campbell, both seen as vitally important in the emergence of science fiction as a 20th century American literature, in which ‘hard sf’ has become identified with the genre as a whole. In this sense, ‘hard sf’ is seen as interchangeable with terms like ‘archetypal’, ‘core’ or ‘genre’ sf. I think it is perhaps with this broader sense of the term that we should read ‘new hard sf’, rather than the way I want to use the term.
In the 1950s new writers like Philip K. Dick, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester were emerging whose varied work would fit more comfortably in the pages of magazines like Galaxy or F&SF than it would in Astounding. By the 1960s writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas M. Disch were emerging alongside a new wave that in Britain brought the ideas and techniques of literary modernism into science fiction, and in America exalted a new iconoclasm and sexual openness. The 1970s saw the contradictory emergence of feminist sf and the revitalisation of space opera prompted by the appearance of Star Wars. With the 1980s, of course, we got cyberpunk. And so on. All of these writers and movements broadened the range and affect of science fiction while simultaneously attenuating the influence of Campbellian hard sf.
Hard sf continued throughout this time, of course, and continues today, mostly through the pages of Analog. Nevertheless, the sense that here was the core of the genre, the place where the interesting and important developments were happening, the necessary work that one had to read in order to keep up with the very best of science fiction, faded away. If I had to put a date on when hard sf was recognised as being no longer relevant to the general thrust of science fiction, I suspect it would have to be in the 1970s. The writers who emerged under Campbell’s tutelage – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, and so forth – continued to be respected, though more for their old books than the new work they were publishing. Stories from the ‘golden age’ continued to be republished in anthologies, but contemporary stories that followed the same model were largely ignored.
In short, hard sf emerged during the 1940s and had pretty much run out of steam by the 1970s. That’s a good long run for any movement within science fiction, but it is still an awful long time since it could be described as cutting edge. And yet …
A little while ago, I republished at this blog a column that I had written in 2012 about Tom Godwin’s story ‘The Cold Equations’, first published in Campbell’s Astounding in 1954. That day, this blog received more visitors than on any previous day.
The next day, I followed it up with an essay I wrote in 2008 called ‘Hard Right’. The number of visitors to the blog that day was almost four times more than it had been the day before.
Since then I have followed it up with pieces about a vitally important new wave story, about Nebula Award winners, about a present-day hard sf writer, about one of the major novels of last year. Yet visitor numbers on the blog have fallen back to exactly the level they were at before I published the piece on ‘The Cold Equations’.
The conclusion is mystifying but inescapable: a sixty-year-old story would seem to be of more pressing interest than anything written in science fiction since. A polemical essay on what I consider to be the right-wing bias of a form of the literature whose heyday mostly came before I was born, is far far more exciting and more relevant than anything happening in science fiction today.
Honestly, I have no idea why that might be. Why does ‘The Cold Equations’ continue to excite such passion (it’s not just me, I remember the correspondence generated when the New York Review of Science Fiction ran a series of pieces on the story a few years back)? Why are people so exercised by an attack on a form of the genre that few of them would have been alive to follow when it first appeared?
I could hazard a guess about the reason. I suspect that hard sf represents the last time that the whole of the genre could be encompassed, and therefore it has come to stand for science fiction as a whole, so an attack on hard sf is seen to be an attack on everything that we understand sf to be. Or perhaps it is, as I suggested above, the residual core of the genre, so that when we strip away everything whose place within science fiction might be questioned by one standard or another, what remains is Campbellian hard sf. In which case, as before, an attack on the part equals an attack on the whole. Or perhaps it was that I brought politics into the equation; if you place yourself on either side of the political divide you are probably going to resent the attack, and if you regard sf as politically neutral then the very fact of such an attack, regardless of your own politics, would undermine the whole edifice. It could be any or all of those, or any of a host of other reasons, I simply don’t know. But the fact that this topic aroused so much interest, when no other topic I have touched upon comes close, is revealing of something.
Inevitably, when you get so much interest in something, then you get comments. Probably, in fact, many more than I’ve seen; on Facebook, for instance, I have come across echoes of discussions that I never saw. Most of them were interesting to receive but they didn’t exactly stir me to take the conversation on: it was so obvious it didn’t need saying; you got the politics completely wrong; yes, that’s why I’ve always felt uneasy about that story; whatever you say, that story is not hard sf; and so forth. But there were comments, notably from Ian Sales and Ted Chiang, that made me pause and think again about the argument I was making. Not that I want to change my position, but I suspect that what I was trying to say was rather more subtle than I was able to convey.
Let us take Ted Chiang’s point, that I am ‘defining hard SF as only the stories in which the social response to the physical laws of the universe is a conservative one, in which case, the statement that hard SF is right wing becomes tautological’. If that is what I am doing, then yes the case is undermined. But that is certainly not what I thought I was doing, I thought I was looking at things I found common in the stories I would consider hard sf, and then extrapolating from that. In other words, what I see in stories like ‘The Cold Equations’, to take what seems to me to be an exemplar for the class of Campbellian hard sf stories, is that the social response to the physical laws of the universe is absolutely as rigid as the physical laws themselves. The human response to the physical limitations of nature comes in the engineering, and the engineering does not make sense. There are no tolerances in the engineering, there is no room for human error, there is no room to deal with any emergency that may arise. Given that there is a very limited number of such craft available, which presumably means that the pilot and his craft are meant to rejoin the mothership after their errand of mercy because otherwise the ship’s ability to respond to any future emergency is seriously curtailed, the limitations of the engineering are completely nonsensical. The human laws, the regulations that are cited several times within the story, are then framed to take into account not the physical laws of the universe but the technological failures of the engineering. That is, I detect an extreme conservative streak underlying the science fictional structure of the story.
By the by, I don’t think I’m alone in detecting such a streak in hard sf, nor that it is visible only in this one story. A few years before Godwin’s story was even written, a story was published that would never have appeared in Campbell’s Astounding because it satirised this aspect of Campbellian hard sf. I’m thinking of ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ by Cordwainer Smith, first published in 1950. In Smith’s story, spacemen are literally dehumanized, anything that allows an emotional response to the world is cauterised in them and can only be restored, partially and temporarily, by the use of drugs. When a new system is developed that may allow fully-functional human beings to go into space, their response is to attempt to murder the inventor. It is notable that the Scanners have, superficially, a form of democracy, but their dehumanized nature means this is easily and blatantly manipulated by those in authority. In other words, the human response to the physical constraints of going into space is specifically equated with a form of fascistic authoritarianism. I am sure that in writing this, Smith, a subtle political thinker, was responding to what he found in the hard sf of his day.
Ian Sales makes a similar point to Ted when he says ‘there is no way, given the laws of the universe, the pilot can get more energy from the fuel he carries. That is a hard limit, wired into the fabric of reality.’ The point I was trying to make is that it is not hard-wired into the fabric of reality, but into the fabric of the story. I’m not saying that the pilot should have been able to get more energy from the fuel he carries, but that he should have been carrying more fuel in the first place, because without that facility the ship he is piloting is not properly equipped to do the job it is supposed to do. That failure of engineering is dictated not by the physical laws of the universe, but by the author. It is a set-up to tell this particular story; it is a story that deliberately negates the way humans would flexibly adapt themselves to the rigid laws of the universe in order to justify the application of equally and illogically rigid human laws. It is the fact that what I am seeing in stories such as ‘The Cold Equations’ is the rigidity of authoritarian lawmaking over the flexibility of human ingenuity that leads me to identify such stories as right wing.
And of course this is most visible in ‘The Cold Equations’ because that story is an extreme example of the form. In the main, hard sf stories of the period avoided killing the little girl because there was a competent man on hand. The competent man is a science fictional variant on the Great Man view of history, a conservative view that dates back to Thomas Carlyle which states that the history of the world is shaped by significantly powerful individuals who are thus, themselves, somehow above history. The competent man of Campbellian sf shapes science fiction, and is thus somehow above the laws of nature. The laws, human and physical, apply to everyone with equal rigor, except the hero whose competence or technical know-how or knowledge of scientific arcana allows him to find a way of working around it. In other words, the laws apply equally to everyone, except the good guy. And the good guy in hard sf is a sort of technological equivalent of Dirty Harry, the laws don’t apply to them because they make it come out right at the end. Hard sf is no more liberal than Dirty Harry.
Ian further demurs at my assumption that ‘because hard sf obeys natural laws, it follows then that it must obey human laws.’ Actually I’m making a slightly more subtle point than that, which is that hard sf assumes that characters must obey human laws in the same way that they obey natural laws. However, both the natural laws and the human laws are framed by the author, and framed in such a way as to be most draconian. The laws of nature may be rigid, but there is absolutely no reason, beyond the ideological imperative of the author, why the human laws in response to nature should be so unforgiving.
I am not saying that I think Ted and Ian are wrong in their response to my piece. I am just trying to clarify what I was trying to say in the hope that it might make apparent why I continue to hold a view that differs from their response.