Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Guest Columns
 
June 2011

Who Killed Science Fiction? Compleat and Unexpurgated
A Review by Bud Webster

I have long since forgotten exactly where the idea for Who Killed Science Fiction? originated, but it took solid hold of my thoughts with a firm determination, almost as if the scheme was working on automatic....I knew damn well I wanted a Hugo. - from the compiler's introduction

Fandom is weird. I can say that; I've been a faan for almost forty years now. Prodom (I've been a Pro for not quite twenty years) is more than a little weird, too. And the relationship between the two? Weird. Fandom reveres Prodom with a love that's oh, so true, but is only too ready to point out the slightest error in a story, or criticize the logic of a sequence of alternately historical events, or even to snort that the scene depicted on the cover doesn't, in point of fact, appear in the book. At all.

But, as with all dysfunctional families, there are times when (contrary to any and all expectations) they settle down and work together. Who Killed Science Fiction? (compiled by Earl Kemp, Merry Blacksmith 2011) is one of those times.

At the end of the 1950s, the science fiction magazine was in big trouble. American News Company, the dominant magazine supplier in the US, had folded in 1957, and that one event affected almost every newsstand magazine being published. Major periodicals continued, finding independent distribution with smaller companies, but the impact on the more marginal titles was catastrophic. Over the next few years, both new and long-running titles dropped like flies, including many of the magazines which featured fiction. The ones that survived either had strong backing from publishers like Dell or strong subscription rosters.

Science fiction magazines, along with the Western and Mystery magazines, were perhaps hit hardest and never really recovered; by the time things had settled down, the paperback book had taken over as the primary source for the casual reader, and it was no longer possible to sustain low-circulation magazines. As author and critic Barry Malzberg said in his invaluable book of critical essays, Engines of the Night, "For most of science fiction, the Fifties ended dismally. There is no way to argue this." Here endeth the lesson.

Thus it was that in 1960, Earl Kemp (1) took faanish action and voiced the concerns of the rest of Fandom. He posited five questions:

1) Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?

2) Do you feel that any single person, action, incident, etc., is responsible for the present situation? If not, what is responsible?

3) What can we do to correct it?

4) Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation?

5) What additional remarks, pertinent to the study, would you like to contribute?

He took the questions, stuck them on a flyer and began passing them out at conventions, and mailed them out to such professionals as he had addresses for. And did he get answers? Oh boy, did he get answers. If you want the whole list, then you'll have to buy the book. I will tease you, though, with a few of the key players: Heinlein, Farmer, Anderson, Asimov, Bester, Blish, Bloch, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Gernsback(!), Knight, Leiber, Silverberg, Vonnegut(!!), Wollheim. Not to mention a passel of others, some better known then than now; some not terribly well-known even at the time, but players nevertheless. He promised them one important thing: no editorial meddling. Their replies would run exactly as they wrote them. It shows in a few places, but by and large (these were professional writers, after all, writing for publication) editing wasn't merited.

Kemp compiled all the replies, added some introductory material, and ran it through SAPS (the Spectator Amateur Press Society) as the first anniversary issue of his own APA-zine (2)

, SaFari. Only 125 copies were produced and sent to fellow SAPS members and the contributors, with a bare handful given to family and friends.

When I got into fandom in the early 1970s, this was already a thing of legend. Nobody I knew actually owned a copy, and in those intervening decades I have still never seen a copy. In 2006, Kemp put it online at his website, http://efanzines.com, but like a lot of old farts I want the physical book and not phosphors. Now, at last, I have a copy and I can see what all the fuss was about.

I'm going to issue a warning here: this is not a book for the casual reader. Joe Lunchpail won't flip through the pages of this one as he sits in the break room gobbling his Philly steak and root-beer. This is a book for those of you with a more than passing interest in the genre, who are curious about how the writers, editors and artists viewed the questions. And be prepared for a few of your Heroes to be...well, let's just say unkind, to one another. It happens, and to their credit, they admit to their own prejudices and express their regrets in side-bar remarks sent to Kemp in individual letters of comment after receipt of the original publication, labeled here "Afterthoughts."

By the way, these "Afterthoughts" are especially valuable, as they allow the reader access not only to the initial replies of the pros involved with the project, but the responses they had to the replies of their colleagues. They're an effective elucidation, and add welcome depth.

I should also point out that I tended to read WKSF? in fits and starts instead of straight through. It's not a linear book, you see, which is the case with most references. An aside from James Blish might send me to the index to find an entry for Ted Cogswell; a line in Silverberg's remarks might cause me to scramble over to Horace Gold's page for a little comparison. Don't expect to go straight through from page 1 to page 215 without skipping around.

There are also some layout eccentricities that can be a bit distracting. I found myself peering through my reading glasses trying to see detail in the Kelly Freas illustration reprinted from the original, and I wish it had been reproduced larger. I'm still not sure what the caption is. I was delighted to see that the contributors' signatures gathered by Kemp over the ensuing years were reproduced, but some of them are a little fuzzy. I suspect this is a problem more related to the lightness of the originals rather than mere scanner-glitch, since the cover scans used throughout (and very effectively, too) are perfectly fine.

Kemp, as a writer, rambles in his introductory material, informative though it is. Just accept it; it's as much the inevitable result of his faanishness as it is anything else, and an integral part of what is, after all, a very important faanish document.

All that aside, this is a very thoughtful book, filled with insights into both the field in general and the project's participants that fans just might not otherwise get. Let's face it, the questions posed in print in 1960 (and revisited twenty years later, when online publishing was a new thing) are still raging today in blogs, mail-lists and other online venues, not to mention panels at conventions and conferences, and the answers haven't changed all that much. This is a positive thing, I'm thinking. After all, if magazine science fiction hasn't died in 50+ years, it's probably in reasonable health.

Be aware that along with the very real thought and deliberation there is a certain amount of just plain bitching present in these pages. It may be a little dismaying for some, but writers/editors are people, and people sometimes bitch about the things they feel passionately about. Believe me, science fiction people - pro or fan - can be very passionate about their field of endeavor, and with a subject as potentially explosive as this one, hackles are raised almost reflexively. The relationship between editor and writer can be rife with tension anyhow, and a certain amount of finger-pointing is inevitable. Don't get me wrong; the pages aren't soaked with vinegar, just be prepared for it when it pops up.

Overall, Who Killed Science Fiction? is a worthy addition to the library of anyone who considers themselves even a quasi-serious fan of science fiction, if only to have the thoughts of your favorite writer(s) and/or editor(s) on this important (to us, anyhow) subject in book form. It won Earl Kemp that Hugo he wanted in 1961 for Best Fanzine; I think its chances for winning anther one next year, for Associational Book, are pretty good. If I've managed to pique your interest, you can order it directly here: http://www.merryblacksmith.com/bookpages/wksf.html


1. Kemp is a well-known Chicago fan and a co-founder of Advent Publishers, one of the most important publishers of stfnal and faanish criticism.

2. APA = Amateur Press Association, a sort of ongoing roundtable discussion in which fan writers create 'zines and mail them to a chosen editor, who then bundles them together and sends them out to the membership. APAs existed before fandom per se came about; H. P. Lovecraft belonged to several in the 1920s.

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