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Wednesday 15 May 2002

2002: The Year the Science Fiction Died

by Gary Westfahl

The first issue of Amazing Stories — by reasoned consensus the first science fiction magazine, and the phenomenon that established science fiction as a recognized genre — was dated April, 1926, and for decades that constituted enough precision for literary historians. Last year, however, I learned that a dedicated researcher had carefully studied patterns of American magazine distribution in the 1920s to conclude that copies of Amazing Stories were first available on newsstands on Friday, March 5, 1926.

Upon hearing the news, I immediately suggested to members of a science fiction listserv that March 5 be officially established as Science Fiction Day, the birthday of the genre and a time, as I said in the message, when fans might “quietly celebrate their senseless devotion to science fiction.” I am told my remarks were forwarded to some worthies at the Philadelphia WorldCon, evidently without any impact.

Still, if the logic behind the proposal is accepted, a milestone of sorts recently passed without comment: on March 5, 2002, science fiction became 76 years old, and 76 years currently also happens to be the average life expectancy of an American citizen. As of March 5, 2002, one might therefore contend, science fiction finally achieved its statistically projected life expectancy.

And in that context, the devastating series of deaths that have shocked the science fiction community since March 5, 2002, with intimations of more tragedies to come, begin to seem grimly appropriate.

Arguably, this is purely a coincidence: only one of the writers, editors, and fans who have died since March 5 (Richard Cowper) was actually born in 1926, and he and Cherry Wilder were two of the innumerable contributors to science fiction who came from nations with different life expectancies.

Yet there might be a meaningful connection between the key development of 1926 and the deaths of 2002. Many people who discovered science fiction in Amazing Stories were children, adolescents, or young adults when the magazine was first being published; others born after 1926 encountered science fiction in the pages of magazines like Astounding Science-Fiction and Planet Stories; for members of the Baby Boom generation, first exposure to science fiction may have involved a Winston juvenile in their libraries or an Ace Double on newsstand racks. If one determined the years of birth of everyone who was drawn into science fiction by these means, their average year of birth would not be far from 1926. In fact, if one calculates the average year of birth for eight of the more prominent names in recent obituaries — Cowper, George Alec Effinger, Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty, Bruce Pelz, John R. Pierce, Henry Slesar, and Wilder — the result is 1926.5.

Thus, the generations of readers who were first captivated by science fiction before 1960, when it was primarily a print-based medium, are now collectively reaching an age when their deaths can be expected, and the authors they cherished are collectively in the same position. Magazines like Locus must henceforth plan to reserve more space for obituaries. What has occurred in the past two months is not an aberration, but rather a sobering new reality.

Commentators can offer such analyses dispassionately, and knowledgeable readers can abstractly mourn the passing of talents like Lafferty and Cowper. But you can’t keep talking about statistics when you have some personal connection to the deceased, so allow me to say a few words about Damon Knight, George Alec Effinger, and Bruce Pelz.

Back in 1991, when I was barely a blip on anyone’s radar, I received a letter from Damon praising an essay I had published in the scholarly journal Extrapolation and inviting me to submit essays to his own journal Monad: Essays on Science Fiction, even though it had originally been projected as a forum for science fiction writers. Needless to say, that invitation was tremendously encouraging — the first indication I ever received that I might legitimately harbor aspirations to publish outside of the confines of academia, aspirations I was then inspired to pursue. For those who curse the day that my prose entered their purview, Damon is one of the people you can blame. Later, when I published my first book, Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction, I asked Damon to read the manuscript and compose a supportive blurb, which he readily supplied, and his pithy compliment still appears on the press’s website.

George Alec Effinger was an old friend of my sister Brenda Westfahl, now Brenda Bright; they met when he was at Yale and she was at Vassar. (There is a character named Westfahl in his 1973 story "Naked to the Invisible Eye," a tribute to her, not me.) Though they were never romantically involved, they stayed in touch over the years by means of occasional letters, which I got to read, and she would sometimes relay questions to him from Her Little Brother Who Was Interested in Science Fiction, which he would dutifully answer. One of my queries concerned the non-appearance of Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions, and somewhere in my closet is a letter with his extended response. On another occasion, when I was being playfully coy with family members about why my newborn son's middle name was "Anson," Brenda had her own science fiction query for "Alec," so he quickly wrote back to explain the reference.

I saw Bruce a few times at Los Angeles science fiction conventions, but more often at the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature at the University of California, Riverside, where he was a regular visitor. One tribute described how much Bruce had enjoyed a leisurely retirement during the 1990s, but it seemed like every time I saw him he was engaged in arduous labor, transporting heavy boxes from his car to the Eaton Collection. Having accumulated a vast library of fandom-related books, fanzines, programs, and other materials, he had decided that the Eaton Collection would be the best home for these documents, and he was determined to personally deliver them all in a series of trips. Our last meeting and e-mail correspondence came a few months ago, when he provided prompt and helpful responses to inquiries about the locations of William Rotsler’s notebooks and one issue of Wilson Tucker’s fanzine Le Zombie.

Knight’s and Pelz’s countless acts of kindness to fellow members of the science fiction community are documented in many places, while Effinger’s generosity was necessarily limited by his recurring medical and legal problems. But they all demonstrated their commitment to the field of science fiction, and their willingness to provide assistance to anyone who shared that commitment. If you had a question, they answered it; if you asked for a favor, they tried to be obliging; if they had something valuable to contribute, they contributed it. All they wanted in return was to know that you really cared, that you were genuinely interested in the answer to the question, that you were actually going to make use of the materials they provided, that you were in some way serving the shared goal of advancing the cause of science fiction. And it is an attitude that a recipient feels compelled to emulate, so that now, within the parameters of my busy schedule, I endeavor to respond quickly and supportively to any requests and questions I may receive.

While these deaths may seem incalculable losses, there is the consoling thought that legions of people from later generations, who entered the field after 1960 and are thankfully unlikely to inspire imminent obituaries, have displayed an equally fervent commitment to science fiction, ensuring the genre’s continuation. This is true. Still, their concepts of what “science fiction” means will differ from those of their predecessors.

Today, there is first a burgeoning community of science fiction scholars who may have initially encountered science fiction in a college classroom. These people typically embrace the timeframe of Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery’s The Norton Book of Science Fiction and limit their studies to works published after 1960, usually novels by major writers like Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, and William Gibson. Second, there are vast numbers of fans who were attracted to science fiction because of Star Trek and Star Wars. Their interests may have broadened over the years, but they remain principally interested in science fiction film and television, while others are devoted to related forms like comic books and video games. For these fans, as Brian Stableford has maintained, science fiction in the mass media is more significant than science fiction in print.

There is nothing wrong with the authors that scholars favor, nothing wrong with the films, programs, and games that contemporary fans prefer, and I have enjoyed, examined, and written about them myself. But I view them as aspects of a much larger story, whereas others discomfitingly appear to feel that they are the story.

No changing of the guard is abrupt or complete, and there remain many among us who are passionately devoted to studying and preserving the entire history of science fiction, many who would rather read a science fiction book than watch an episode of the latest science fiction television series. But Knight, Effinger, and Pelz epitomized an era when such persons represented the majority of the science fiction community, and their passings indicate that we are entering an era — perhaps we long ago entered an era — when such persons are a distinct minority.

In considering how to best serve or advance the cause of science fiction, those of the new majority will take different sorts of actions. Intriguing mysteries to investigate might include reported plans for a second animated Star Trek series; key documents to track down might include a rare Octavia Butler interview published in a Pasadena newspaper; important collectibles to preserve might include vintage fan fiction from the 1960s. Conversely, they may have no idea why Amazing Stories was important or what a mimeographed fanzine looks like. In the questions that they answer, the favors they provide, and the materials they collect, their distinctive priorities will always be in evidence; none of them, for example, would ever bother to research something like the exact date that the first issues of Amazing Stories hit the newsstands. Their senseless devotion to science fiction will instead reflect their own concerns, inexorably influencing all aspects of the genre.

Science fiction is dead; long live science fiction.

Damon Knight, George Alec Effinger, and Bruce Pelz were wise enough to understand what that statement means, and they were wise enough to accept the transition they were observing with characteristic good grace. And as we mourn their deaths, we should all endeavor to do the same.

Gary Westfahl is the author of The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction and other books, is working on a Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film, and is a columnist for Interzone.

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