»  Taki's Magazine

March 15, 2012

  When Sci-Fi Dared to Dream


Here's a cultural artefact of the minor sort: Issue Number 82 (July 1957) of Authentic Science Fiction, a monthly magazine of stories in that genre, 128 pages, sparsely illustrated.

You can get anything on the internet nowadays. I got this from an Australian website while randomly browsing one day. The reason I wanted to buy it was, that I had quite a vivid memory of it. It was the first sci-fi magazine I ever owned. I can't remember whether I actually bought it or not. Probably not: two shillings — one percent of my Dad's weekly wages in 1957 — would have been a lot for the 12-year-old Derb. I had an uncle who was a sci-fi buff; most likely he gave it to me.

It was a coincidence of three things that prompted me to pull down that copy of Authentic from the bookshelf just now and browse nostalgically in it. Two of the things were news items: this report on the health hazards of space travel, and the death of Moebius.

That's not Moebius of the famous strip, which in all fairness should really be called the Listing strip. That Moebius died in 1868. (Q: Why did the chicken cross the Moebius strip? A: To get to the same side.) It's Moebius the sci-fi comic-book artist. You see the emerging theme here.

The third of the three prompts was a post-lecture question someone asked me at an event the other day: What kind of things did I read as a kid? The short answer, once I reached the age at which I was able to pick my own reading matter, is: science fiction.

For the years prior to that, the answer would be: Whatever was put in front of me, which fortunately included some good nutritious stuff — Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, R.M. Ballantyne, R.L. Stevenson, and my Dad's 1908 edition of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia. (That last, a charming period piece full of little boys in sailor suits and little girls in black stockings, still had enough vitality in 1973 to incite a riot that left four people dead.)

Once I could pick and choose, though, I read very little else willingly except sci-fi all through my teen years. It was my great good fortune to be emerging into imaginative daylight just as sci-fi was in its high summer. Heinlein was writing, and Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, C.M. Kornbluth …

We Brits were somewhat of a backwater in sci-fi as in pop music, our writers mostly playing Cliff Richard to America's Elvis, but we had two first-magnitude stars in Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham, and half a dozen names who deserve to be better remembered than they are: Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Eric Frank Russell, John Christopher.

If you never felt the appeal of sci-fi, I can't transmit it to you. Kingsley Amis caught it best, I think. The purpose of science fiction is, he wrote, "to arouse wonder, terror and excitement." I still feel a trace of the old thrill, turning the yellowing pages of that 1957 Authentic. It was a British magazine, struggling in a tiny market, yet that random issue (one of the last: Authentic folded later that year) had stories by Asimov, Silverberg, and Brian Aldiss. These guys were prolific beyond belief. Kurt Vonnegut once said that his original aim in life had been to become a sci-fi writer, but he just couldn't keep up the pace.

The trouble with having lived through that high summer was, that the sun never again seemed as bright. Sometime in the early 1960s sci-fi lapsed into self-consciousness and (yecchh!) "social relevance," and lost its soul. Then, like everything else, it went from narrative to visual: sci-fi movies, TV shows, up-market comic strips by artists like Moebius. Well, not like Moebius; there was nobody like Moebius. His drawings for the mid-1970s adult comic Heavy Metal came as close to visually capturing the Golden Age vision as can be done — far closer, certainly, than puerile dreck like Star Wars or Back to the Future.

There, you see, there's the trouble: an adolescence spent with Asimov, van Vogt, and Heinlein makes you a crashing sci-fi snob. Don't even get me started on Doctor Who or Star Trek. I grew up in the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux: you can keep your supermarket plonk.

And looking back, how odd it all seems. "Imaginative fiction"? Wonder, terror and excitement? Who has the time or mental space for such things now? We surf and browse, twitter and tweet, fondling thoughts for a moment or two, then discarding them for new ones. The imagination grows in stillness and slow time, both of which our civilization has mislaid.

Furthermore, as that BBC story tells us, the dreams of the sci-fi Golden Age have been scotched by cold reality. There will be no adventures in space: our earthly tissues aren't up to the job. Time travel is not possible, and there are no telepaths.

Most likely the future of our species leads to something like the Singularity. By its nature, we cannot comprehend what comes after the Singularity … though the prospect of it generated some striking late sci-fi.

Or as a character says in Authentic No. 82's lead story (one of the very few pieces of fiction I have ever read, by the way, that is written in the second person): "What triumphs ultimately is something too big for your comprehension or mine."