Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Futurians

     I'm currently working on my dissertation, which is focused on feminist science fiction.  The opening chapter is going the deal with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland and the dissertation will end with an essay on Samuel Delaney's Triton.  For no apparent logical reason, I have started the project by writing the third chapter, a chapter on editor and writer Judith Merril.  Merril is primarily remembered for a well-anthologized short story at this point, "Only A Mother", but she was better known as an editor during the  1950's and the 1960's.  During that time, she edited a set of influential anthologies that collected the year's best science fiction.  At this point, I own most those collections, along with her influential, England Swings SF, which I picked up used at Uncle Hugo's for a couple bucks each.  The anthologies are still pretty impressive, combining older authors such as Arthur C. Clarke with newer talent such as J.G. Ballard, who were a part of the so-called New Wave.  In addition, she included work by figures that aren't traditionally considered science fiction writers, including Alfred Jarry and Borges.  Merril implicitly demanded that the genre should be taken more seriously, commercially and culturally, implicitly positing a literary tradition for the genre, and linked it with the 20th Century avant-garde.

       Merril had gotten involved in science fiction through a small group of leftist science fiction writers, who officially existed from 1937 to 1945.  The group included some fairly significant figure within the science fiction sub-culture, including Donald Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Fredrick Pohl, amongst others.  The group linked their interest in the genre with a commitment to radical political change, and both Wollheim and Merril were formally involved in Marxist political organizations.  At the same time, the group was committed to transforming the literary quality of the genre, putting their time and energy into publishing, writing, and editing after 1940.  I think that this literary engagement offers a significant supplement to the conventional narrative on the genre, which places John Campbell's roll as editor of Amazing Stories as the central role of the literary development of the genre.

       Against this canonical narrative of the genre, the Futurians get relatively little attention.  They are inevitably mentioned within these narratives, but the history of the group rarely gets developed beyond these mentions.  They are mentioned within the conflicts in fan culture, Merril is often referred to because of her advocacy of New Wave fiction, and the group was awarded a brief mention in Denning's The Cultural Front.  But one never sees the attention given to the group that is given to the more conventional structures of the sub-culture and genre.  At this point, only one book has been dedicated to exploring the history of the group, written by critic and group member, Damon Knight, and that book is out of print.  It would be difficult to imagine a contemporary literary group that is as influential as the Futurians, who have gotten as little sustained critical and historical analysis as the group has.

         Perhaps it would be productive to list out some of those accomplishments.  Along with the editorial and literary work of Merril, that has already been mentioned, Donald Wollheim played a significant role as an editor within the genre.  He published the first works of Philip K. Dick, Ursula Leguin, Samuel Delaney, and John Brunner.  Wollheim also played a significant role in developing the paperback publishing industry.  Damon Knight was an important anthologist, and more significantly, produced on the first sustained works of literary criticism of the genre, In Search of Wonder.  These individuals played a significant role in shaping who we read in the genre, how we read those books, and the critical engagement that we could have with those books.

      I think that this is more significant that a simple issue of cultural recovery.  The inclusion of the Futurians in the historical development of the genre would demand that some of the schematic historical narratives become messier and more problematic.  It's not that the narratives about Campbell and Gernsbeck don't have value, but they offer a false totality when they are offered alone.  In addition, the substantial inclusion of the group disallows an isolated analysis of the rise of the genre.  It links it back to the Popular Front, and the various literary formations that rose in response to it.  Even if substantial sections of the science fiction community refused to link themselves to this formation, that action needs to be understood within both political and aesthetic terms.  I'm tempted to think of the Futurians in the temporal terms set up by Raymond Willams.  The group operated as a sort of emergent formation during their official existence.  Their aesthetic and political interests became a sort of dominant influence in the 1960's in a modified form after their demise.

      I should probably stop here so that I can start working on my actual dissertation, but I probably will return to this topic.  Maybe the next time I write on it, I'll deal with Merril's writing, which is after all, the actual focus of the chapter.  Anyways, I am going to get some coffee and read about melodrama.

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