Thursday, July 2, 2009

Apollocon 2009: "SF: Then and Now"

Of all the panels I attended, this one was the best. Moderated by Bill Crider, the panel included Alexis Glynn Latner, Bennie Grezlik, Larry Friesen, and Lawrence Person.

Bill started off the discussion with an obvious question: where do we start? Does SF/F begin with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells or somewhere else? Lawrence chimed in with his take: SF started great with Verne and Wells, then proceeded to "suck" for a few years, then, gradually, started to get good again. Larry stepped and reminded everyone that Edgar Rice Burroughs used then-current science as the basis for the science in his Mars books. Sure, it's a little cheesy now but back then, it was current thought. Bill made a point that we know too much now. All the panelists and many audience members nodded their heads.

Bill then posed the question using Lawrence's term: Did SF really "suck" back in the days when Hugo Gernsback, the editor of Amazing Stories. Alexis said it was like comparing apples, oranges, and key limes. She mentioned Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crud. Lawrence countered by saying that modern crud is so much better and more proficient than Golden Age crud.

A member of the audience asked the panel to discuss "science fiction" before Gernsbeck, that is how Wells, Verne, and Burroughs rose up to the prominence they have now. Lawrence stated that in those years, "science fiction" wasn't a genre as we know it now. They were just stories. Gernsbeck realized that there was a market for a magazine that features these kinds of stories. Thus, he created Amazing Stories.

In these days, many times authors wrote stories where the idea was the hero. Larry pointed out that authors would take a known situation, even if it was in space, and examine what would happen when an Idea intruded. This led, eventually, to sub-par stories, something John W. Campbell tried to rectify when he was editor Astounding Stories in the 1940s.

The next question was: Why should we care about the old stuff if so much of it is bad? Larry said that in 1970, when the New-Wave SF was being written, he didn't like it. A story, for him, has to be worth telling. He'd rather read an interesting story badly written than a story with a bad concept excellently written. For a good overview of pre-Golden Age SF, Lawrence suggest Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age, a time more or less from the mid-late 1930s through the 1950s. Among the name floated: Van Vogt, Heinlein, de Camp, Doc Smith, Robert E. Howard.

Bill made sure that everyone was on the same page with the term "SF." Was it science fiction or speculative fiction? Speculative, the panel agreed. Larry then asked posed a question and answered it: What is SF? It's a story about stuff you think could happen, not necessarily about stuff you know couldn't happen. That is, if you know that Mars doesn't have any living thing on it, that would be "fantasy" if you wrote about it now, but it wasn't when Burroughs wrote his stories.

The panel discussed the short fiction market back in the day as well as the various media available back then and now. Bill's next topic was space opera. We had it back then and we have it again now. Bennie, like Lawrence, said that the stuff we have now is so much better than it was back in earlier ages. Larry brought up John Campbell's guideline: treat the background as the background unless your reader need to know something. (Goes back to the world building ideas I've been writing about, including the Epic Fantasy panel.) Bill said that modern readers and writers are much more sophisticated nowadays. Larry misses the way certain authors like Burroughs composed sentences. He flags the first paragraph, which happens to be one sentence, of Warlord of Mars, Burroughs' third Barsoom book. Here is is.
In the shadows of the forest that flanks the crimson plain by the
side of the Lost Sea of Korus in the Valley Dor, beneath the hurtling
moons of Mars, speeding their meteoric way close above the bosom of
the dying planet, I crept stealthily along the trail of a shadowy
form that hugged the darker places with a persistency that proclaimed
the sinister nature of its errand.
The panel discussed a topic near and dear to Bill's heart: artwork. It, like the stories, is much more sophisticated. Weird Tales was mentioned as a good example of artwork that is both good and cheesy. Alexis mentioned that imagery we now get from the Hubble telescope or any of the Voyager missions. Talk about sense of wonder. Larry said you can't write like Burroughs anymore. Lawrence countered and said you can, you just have to change you science.

Speaking of change, a last point Bill made was to read the following authors: Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jack Williamson, and Clifford Simak. You should read some early material and then some later material to discern how they changed their styles with the times.

The discussions went right up to the end of the hour. It was a highly informative panel and I learned quite a bit. Hope you did, too.


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  2. A good one for Ellison would be The Essential Ellison: A Thirty-five Year Retrospective or the updated Fifty year version. They cover his career and show you his development and changes over the years.

  3. This is my first time to your blog (followed a link over from Charles Gramlich), and I have to say I'm glad I dropped by! Very cool write-ups. Now if I can just book your blog. Nope- wait, if you don't mind I'll just add you to the blogs I follow.

  4. Randy - You know, I have never read any Ellison. Now I have a good title. Thanks.

    Rick - Thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoyed the posts and more of them. I'm heading to your blog now.