So, this might possibly be another Human Wave Post.
Recently someone – okay, okay, Dave Truesdale – posted a bunch of pictures of conferences in the seventies, which still had – in attendance – a lot of people from the Golden Age.
I was particularly struck by pictures of a young Jim Baen, who looked nothing like I imagined him as a young man, which goes to show you we’re all prone to thinking that those we knew at a certain age were never young.
As someone who is now – has confronted pictures from Comicon – no longer young, this is somewhat problematic because I realize many people will never know I was once a young woman. Eh. That is just plain weird. However, since inside I’m still 12 years old, that young woman is no more representative of the real me than the middle aged curmudgeon I now am.
Anyway, when Dave posted those pictures, a lot of people said they wished they could have been at those cons. Like who doesn’t? A lot of those men (and women) marked our adolescence and had more influence on us than close family friends. I, for one, will forever regret that I never got to meet Poul Anderson [Yes, I routinely misspell his name. Partly because in Portugal editors often helpfully corrected his spelling to Paul.] who had a signing not a mile from my house when the kids were little. I could have gone, I could, but the kids had some sort of stomach flu going on and I thought I didn’t want to give that to the nice writer. And then I thought “He’s relatively young. There will be other chances” which just proves that I’m an idiot.
There were other snuffled replies about “I wish I had lived in the Golden Age.”
You know, I’ve seen the pictures too, the small, intimate gatherings with all the names we’ve grown to revere. The air of collegiate comradery. I’ve heard the stories about beginning writer x being taken under the wing of writer y, sight unseen. (I think that’s why so many of you send me your manuscripts to read. For the record, if you’re a friend – and a few of you are – I’ll get to them. I’ve just been slammed under illness so long that the ability to follow a thought for more than a page eluded me. Hence a lot of re-reading or those non-fiction books that are a sort of fact per page. I’m now all right – doctor gave the all clear – but have been REVELING in reading for pleasure around getting the other house ready for sale. As soon as that is done I’ll make some time to read your stuff, because paying it forward SHOULD be part of the ethos of the field. Strangers, OTOH, who contact me for the very first time to send me a story to read… I might never get to.)
We know the air of collegiate comradery is a lie, to an extent. Note I said to an extent, and I’ll explain later.
Part of my amusement at the reaction to the whole Sad Puppies thing has been the very same people saying there were never politics in SF being the very same people who once told me that there were rifts I didn’t see in the field and that some people in the early two thousands still didn’t talk to each after arguments over the Vietnam war back in the day.
And anyone who has read Heinlein’s bio knows about the other rifts in fandom and among professionals way back before that, a lot of them political.
But this is to an extent, because to another extent… Well, guys, we’re all pretty weird. We spend our days writing about worlds and futures that don’t exist.
Older son who aspires to medicine (and is engaged in preparation to practice it) tells me that only people with a compulsion to work at healing (and he says it’s a compulsion) understand other people with the same issue. Well, guys… Yeah, same for writers, and to an extent for fans.
I’m not going to tell you that I love all my colleagues. There are many I loathe, many I cordially detest, many I tolerate, and, yes, many I love dearly. Weirdly, this doesn’t rift across political lines (of course, my politics being what they are, they are at best cross-sectional to real world politics) or even correlate to those I like to read. Yeah, curse it, some of the ones I loathe write pretty good stuff. (Shakes fist at great novelist in the sky, who has a sense of humor.)
The truth is we’re all creative people, opinionated and passionate and about as sociable as a skunk convention. Rifts, political and others (I had issues with one of my colleagues on sartorial grounds. No, REALLY) are to be expected. But to an extent we band together because only our crazy kind understands our crazy kind. Same as with fandom. Which explains the violence of our quarrels, since it’s exactly like siblings squabbling over the dinner table. (There were days I was sure my kids were destined to do the Cain and Abel thing.)
Still with all that, I’ll admit there’s a … “glow” to the early conventions that I think goes beyond the patina given by time and death (which as we all know dress people in their best smile.)
That “We’re all weird together” and that feeling of banding together was there. Plus there was the glow of the “Golden Age.”
Sneering people have said that the golden age of science fiction is 13 years old. That is, that all of us fall hard for it at that age, after which it loses some of that patina.
Sneering people are justifying the fact that SF has lost a lot of its glow as time goes by. But I don’t think they’re quite right about it. There was up through about the mid sixties, if I’m right (remember my perception was distorted by when things were translated to Portuguese, which means my inner perception of the field is all out of order), a daring, a near-insanity to SF/F which was what attracted me to it.
There were books that hinted at a greater destiny for humans in the stars, and some that explicitly drew it out. Humans in those books were pretty hot stuff. Sometimes we came from the stars, and were going back to them. And sometimes we were what was needed to make the Galaxy work. Big stuff that. SF was like a child dreaming of growing up and being first man on Mars or on another solar system. There is no logical reason a kid – any kid – should be. And there is no reason that humanity should be the hope of the Galaxy. But the kid dreams it because he’s that kid. (You really don’t daydream for other people. Well, I do, but I’m a writer.) And there is no reason he shouldn’t do it. And though he might never make it, perhaps he’ll design propulsion systems for the ships that will enable our colonizing space. Or perhaps he’ll contribute minimally to our future colonies on Mars.
In any case, no one should deny that kid those dreams. And no one should deny humans the dreams either.
Which is where the golden age ends. Humanity right now is like those poor little boys and girls raised by “responsible adults” ™ who clip their wings early. “No, little Tommy. You can’t grow up to be a Space Trader because at the rate of current development of science—” And then little Tommy tries to be sensible and studies accounting and ends up working for the IRS or the EPA, ends up growing up trying to “contribute” by making it impossible for other people to do things, to dare, to dream, by enforcing every petty little rule, every dot on the law (even if it’s a fly spec) and grows up to teach his kids not to dream, not to fly. And then that entire family (or species) becomes stodgy, hidebound, small. And in a self-fulfilling prophecy, none reaches higher.
And this is what Science Fiction (and to an extent fantasy, but mostly SF) has become. It has become a literature of dire warnings and brow beatings.
To an extent that was the result of the Cold War and the panic over MAD. To another it was the result of a literary theory made by killjoys who couldn’t understand that literature was good for something unless it was good for “reflecting the present.” (They suffer from the same delusions in art, heaven help us all.)
And then there are the killjoys of “known science.” “Humans can’t have come from the stars, because—” or “We could never colonize space because—”
For the sake of Bob (Heinlein) people, SF is a literature of dreams. It’s a literature where known science should be able to be waved away with “this is the future. They know things we don’t.”
Okay, not ad infinitum, no. There needs to be SOME rationality and some “well, maybe, but not that we can see.” Waving away the ansible with “never possible” is the pettiness of little minds. Waving away flying to the moon on a chariot drawn by a flock of geese, otoh, is not petty unless the book is a fantasy or written for little kids. If there’s no rationality, no veneer of possibility, then it should still be written, and can be sold under fantasy.
(Science being indistinguishable from magic at a certain point, it’s even possible our future will resemble fantasy more. BUT it’s a different headspace and I’m okay labeling it differently.)
Somewhere along the line sociologists got hold of our books and started pulling long faces and talking about how SF is supposed to reflect the problems of our time.
Really? REALLY? There aren’t enough contemporary books for that? And what if little Tommy doesn’t want to grow up to be a bureaucrat?
I’m here to tell you differently. SF/F is supposed to reflect the dreams of mankind. No, you’re not to contradict known science in SF/F unless you come up with a REALLY COOL WAY to wave it away.
Uncle Lar, one of my first readers, pointed out to me that there is no known way to design either the anti-grav wands I call brooms nor the laser guns I call burners in the Darkship series UNLESS our knowledge of physics is completely out of whack.
That’s fine. (And he didn’t tell me I couldn’t have it, because he doesn’t want little Tommy to grow up to be a bureaucrat!) Because our knowledge of physics MIGHT be completely out of whack. And this is five hundred years in the future.
And besides, it’s my world and my inner 13 year old tomboy wants brooms and burners. So there.
In the same way I loved Ric Locke’s work partly because of his hints that humans had come from the stars. Does this accord with known facts? Well, no. But landsakes, people, if we came from the stars, the record could have been confused by advanced technology or time traveling or mumble mumble mumble.
At comicon I listened to my colleagues (note, not Kevin Anderson, who I’m fairly sure also writes for his inner 13 year old) talking about how their novels dealt with this current problem, or highlighted this current issue, or…
And it sounded to me as dreary as when my teachers talked about how we should read this or that book because they were good for us and would “raise our consciousness.” Oh, for crying in bed. I know this is Colorado, but sometimes you have to admit consciousness might already be high enough, and encourage dream and imagination instead.
Meanwhile I described my novels as fights for freedom and a world with these really cool things that made me happy.
And you can too.
Fortunately things have changed and we can. Be your novel ever so daring, be it not even vaguely reflective of current day’s “hot issues” you can always indie-publish it and reach your readers. (This is not the same as not being about immortal principles, inherent human characteristics or other things that matter to you – I’m not calling for only happy stories. The world of DST is after all a brutal dictatorship. I’m calling for fun mixed with the “issues” and also for freedom to engage “issues” that don’t obsess NY editors.)
We can’t go back in a time machine and meet the writers of the golden age. But we can be the writers of the new golden age. (And I don’t say this only because my paint-chip color is spun gold.) We should be the writers of the new golden age. And the fans of the new golden age. The internet allows us to recreate some of that cozy, intimate, interesting atmosphere of the old conventions. For instance, on this blog, you all interact with me (and get fish flung at your heads. How much more intimate can it get) in a way that would be possible in those early, small cons. And I can let my guard down and speak frankly with you, as if you were all in my living room. Also word of mouth among fans is now more potent than at any time since the early days. You can review, you can go to Good Reads and talk about what you love, and you can write social media posts to alert a dozen or a hundred of your closest friends to this cool new book you found.
More than at any time since the golden age, we’re free of the shackles of literary criticism, and the sneering dictates of the glitterati.
We’re free, writers and fans, all, to lift humanity up on golden wings of dream and encouraging it to fly.
Go and do it.