Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series

Transcript of Isaac Asimov's Talk:
The History Of Science Fiction After 1938

[Opens with James Gunn's introduction]

Isaac Asimov is one of the major authors of science fiction: in spite of the fact that he's written virtually no science fiction in the past dozen years, his works are landmarks and building stones. He still writes - he writes for a living. He is a compulsive writer, writing eight, nine, ten hours a day; and the volume of his production is staggering. In 1970 his 100th book was published. His first story, Marooned Off Vesta, was published in Amazing Stories in 1939, when he was a 19-year-old student at Columbia University. He soon was turning out fiction for the late John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction while he pursued his academic career. He was one of the four writers introduced in 1939, any one of whom would've made that year significant in science fiction history. The others were Heinlein, Sturgeon, and Van Vogt.

In 1949, Asimov earned his PhD in biochemistry and joined the faculty at the Boston University School of Medicine, but he continued to write science fiction and fact articles. In 1958 he turned to full-time writing of articles and books about science. He has been acclaimed as one of the finest science popularizers of all time. His success may be due to the fact that he writes his articles and books as if they were fiction.

It is Asimov the science fiction writer and observer we meet today. His contribution to science fiction was not only skillfully told stories, but original concepts: concepts like the three laws of robotics in his Robot Stories; concepts like the robot detective which blend the detective stories and science fiction in The Caves Of Steel and The Naked Sun; and concepts like a future history for mankind in which man spreads his empire through the galaxy, an empire which falls and then is brought back again to civilization in The Foundation Trilogy.

Asimov fans will be pleased to learn that Asimov is alive and well and once more writing science fiction.

Hello. You've caught me typing, but that's no surprise - I'm typing all the time. Now I'm talking, which is only a little less likely.

The subject of the lecture is The History of Science Fiction After 1938; and that date is not chosen by mistake. 1938 is a watershed in the history of science fiction, perhaps the most important after 1926, when magazine science fiction first began with Gernsback's Amazing.

John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. It was not, however, until 1938 that the former editor, Mr. F. Orlin Tremaine, left, and the inventory that Mr. Tremaine had gathered, was more or less used up. Therefore, it was in 1938 that readers began to discover Campbellesque stories, the kind of stories that John Campbell accepted and published. And this made a great difference.

Prior to 1938, those who wrote science fiction were primarily pulp writers in their orientation. This perhaps sounds uncomplimentary, but it isn't meant to be. There were a group of writers who wrote for what were then called the pulp magazines, which published specialty literature of all sorts: westerns, romances, detective stories, jungle stories, adventure stories, sea stories, war stories. And they paid very little: in order to make a decent living, someone who wrote these stories had to write a great many of them; and the only way to write a great many was to write in many categories; and some of them wrote science fiction as well.

As a result, science fiction was heavily adventure-flavored. The writers did not necessarily know much science outside of that which they read in the Sunday supplements or in each other's stories. They probably had never met real scientists. And therefore, when science entered, it was with a certain amount of inaccuracy, certain amount of what shall I say, well, certain amount of categorical stereotypical characters - mainly the mad scientist. He was great in these early science fiction stories; almost every story had a mad scientist till you wondered if it was possible to be a scientist without being mad. But the only saving grace they had was that they all had beautiful daughters; and the hero, a sturdy, large-viewed, blonde American, who knew no science but was great in a fight, always fell in love with the scientist's daughter, who was pretty much helpless except for screaming.

At any rate, Campbell changed all that. Campbell himself had gone to MIT and Duke University, had majored in physics, and had the engineering attitude. And what he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic - not realistic in the sense that they couldn't go out into the blue yonder; not realistic in the sense that they couldn't extrapolate wildly; but realistic in the sense that people who worked with science resembled people who actually worked with science; that scientists acted the way scientists do; that engineers acted the way engineers do; and in short that the scientific culture be represented accurately. As a result, he tended to choose stories by people who were either scientists themselves, who had studied science, or who were at least sufficiently well-aware of the scientific culture to be able to speak plausibly in its terms.

Consequently, we began to find a new group of authors in science fiction, quite different from the old. They were not primarily pulp writers; they were engineer-oriented. And this was met with great enthusiasm on the part of the readers: almost any change, almost any radical change is bound to generate enthusiasm, because a certain group of readers who were jaded by what went before would greet the new with cries of joy. Furthermore, those among the readers who could not or would not write stories of the types that had previously been prominent were very likely to try to write once they read stories that they particularly liked; or else they might have been writing all along, but where as earlier editors did not like their orientation, a new editor like Campbell might.

As a result, a flood of new writers came in beginning in 1938 and through the early '40s. Of these by all odds the most important and the one who most nearly gave his personal flavor to the times was Robert A. Heinlein. His first story was published in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Stories; it was called Lifeline. And instantly, instantly he became a favorite with the readers. And from then through 1942 he dominated Astounding, and Astounding dominated the field as few single authors and single magazines have ever been able to dominate the magazine field. Heinlein is still an important writer, still a major talent.

Heinlein and those like him were indeed engineer-oriented: Heinlein himself had gone to Annapolis and was an engineer. Van Vogt was another author - A. E. Van Vogt - who gave great flavor to what we might call the Campbell era. Now, he was not a scientist; and this shows how easily one can make categories that are not really accurate. It is not possible to say that in 1938 all the earlier romantic adventure pulp - and I stress that I'm not using the word "pulp" in a derogatory sense - vanished and that in its place came along only Heinlein-type engineer-oriented stories. For one thing there, Heinlein couldn't write enough, and other writers weren't as good as he was; and you couldn't fill a magazine with that alone. And if you wanted to, it wouldn't work anyway, because nothing is so good that will please all by itself. And as a matter of fact, even after 1938 you had the colorful adventure story of the previous era continuing.

E. E. Smith, who was a leading light of the first period with his Skylark stories, continued in very much the same way and even a larger scale with Galactic Patrol, which appeared in 1938, and with succeeding stories based on the Galactic Patrol universe. A. E. Van Vogt, whom I just mentioned, also had incredibly exciting adventure stories in which the science was sometimes not quite comprehensible.

There were other writers as well who came in then, or who having come in earlier now changed more or less gladly to meet the Campbell style: those were Sprague De Camp, and Theodore Sturgeon, and Alfred Bester who was a good example of one who didn't write in John Campbell's magazine but who was also writing in the new style and who eventually became a major talent.

If Heinlein and Van Vogt were par excellence, the writers of what we now call, lots of us, the golden age of science fiction, I must mention that a third writer, who from hindsight would seem to go along with those two, was none other that myself, Isaac Asimov. I've never been afflicted with false modesty, or true modesty either for that matter; and so I might as well say that during the 1940s I wrote Robot Stories as an example of engineer-oriented science fiction, and The Foundation stories which were rather in the older tradition of the wide-spanning galactic romance. Both were more successful in later time than they were at the moment - that's why I say in hindsight, looking back now it seems to me that I was a major entry in the race then, although at the time I must admit I was never aware of being anything but a minor writer.

In any case, what Campbell had done was to create a science fictional world that was very largely a consensus: not everybody wrote in the Campbell background; those who didn't, didn't always write. But the most remarkable stories of the period did create a world of computers, of trips to outer space, of missiles, of a science-important culture. As a matter of fact, the science fictional world of the 1940s was very like in many respects the real world of the 1960s, to the point where to those of us who remember the golden age, we are now living in a science fictional world, in one which Campbell's science fiction did significantly succeed in creating. In other words, no one is going to say that science fiction readers brought a man to the moon all by themselves, but we can say that the kind of science fiction that was published in 1940 helped prepare the public for the acceptance of programs to take a man to the moon. Many of the people involved in it undoubtedly did read science fiction; many of the people involved in it were influenced one way or another by science fiction, even if they hadn't read it. And so we in a real sense, we science fiction writers and readers helped create the present world.

In a sense we also helped destroy our own, at least the type of science fiction that appeared in the 1940s. As time went on, there was a reaction - and perhaps we can date it from the invention of the atomic bomb, or its first use in 1945. As a matter of fact, we had predicted it: the atom bomb was a very easy thing to predict. Cleve Cartmill in 1944 wrote a story called Deadline, which was sufficiently accurate in its description of the atom bomb and its consequences to get himself and John Campbell investigated by military intelligence. Naturally, they found nothing out of the way, but it does show just exactly how accurate the discipline a science fictional imagination can be. Heinlein himself wrote Blowups Happen in 1941, which realistically describes what an atomic energy plant might be like, even though the reality is different in some ways. He wrote Solution Unsatisfactory under a pen name Anson MacDonald, in which he accurately predicted the nuclear stalemate that followed the invention of the atomic bomb, and did that even before the invention of the atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, although some science fiction enthusiasts, including myself, thought that the atomic bomb would bring about a vast increase in science fictional audience, it brought about only a small increase really. And as time went on and more and more of the science fictional predictions came to reality, its effect on increasing the sales of science fiction magazines proved increasingly minimal. Well, now that sounds decreasingly minimal. It did less and less good.

There were several reasons for this: in the first place, science fiction did increase and intensify, but not in the magazine direction. In the late '40s and early '50s the hardcover publishers began to put out science fiction novels. Science fiction began to appear with increasing frequency in softcovers, the paperbacks. And there were new magazines: one, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, originally just The Magazine of Fantasy, appeared in 1949; and another, Galaxy, appeared in 1950. The former was under the editorship of J. Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher; the second was under the editorship of Horace Gold. Both represented reactions to Campbell's Astounding. In both cases there was a greater tendency to dismiss the engineering aspect of science fiction. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction emphasized literary quality, style - the mere fact that they had the word "fantasy" in the title showed that they were less interested strict science fiction. Horace Gold was interested in more in the reaction to scientific advance than to the scientific advance itself, which made in some cases for more sophisticated stories. For instance, Wyman Guin wrote a story called Beyond Bedlam, which described a world in which schizophrenia was handled by allowing everybody to have more than one personality alternately in their bodies; Alfred Bester wrote The Demolished Man, an extraordinarily interesting novel and an unusual one which detailed the kind of society that would follow if telepathy were commonplace; Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth published their novel Gravy Planet, which was eventually, which eventually appeared in book form as Space Merchants, in which a detailed picture of an overcrowded society in which advertising was dominant, was pictured.

These were not Campbell-type stories. Once again, the center of interest had moved away from scientists themselves towards society. It wasn't back to the adventurous hero; it was towards society. Science fiction became even more socially significant. And Campbell's Astounding, while continuing to be the most successful single magazine in the field, was no longer unchallenged. Now and to the present day there are three important magazines in the field, which maintaining the position it started with: Astounding Science Fiction has changed its name to Analog. Galaxy has had a number of editors, as has had The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but in both cases the original orientation is essentially still there. Galaxy is still more interested in what we might call social satire, the pictures of societies under radically different conditions than our own; Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is still interested in emphasizing style and is perhaps a little more experimental than the other two magazines, a little more apt to publish the stories which one can with only difficulty recognize as science fiction. And all three serve the public well. Nevertheless, all three are also only marginally successful from a financial standpoint: science fiction remains today, magazine science fiction remains today where it was in 1938 - that magazine is fortunate if it can be slightly in the black. And yet, science fiction on the whole has managed to spread out both extensively and intensively. We live now in a world which takes science fiction for granted, a world which science fiction helped create.

An indication of the manner in which the science fiction world of the 1940s became the real world of the 1960s can be taken from a personal example. I could have written an article on colonization of the Moon in the 1940s, and I could also have written the very same article in the 1960s. The difference is this: in the 1940s I would have been able to publish the article only in Astounding Science Fiction; in the 1960s I could and did publish the article in The New York Times - same article, but what had been only a science fictional idea only smiled at by "sensible" people, was now thoroughly accepted in even the most respectable of the publications.

In addition, another indication of the broadening scope of science fiction acceptance is the fact that hardcover and softcover publications of science fiction increased steadily through the 1960s. What's more, the visual media also were represented: as early as 1947, I believe, Destination Moon appeared as a movie. Robert Heinlein had been involved in it writing the story. Chesley Bonestell, the great science fiction realist illustrator - in other words, he illustrated other-planetary scenes with science fiction interest but in a thoroughly scientific manner -was also involved.
The number of science fictional movies that appeared after Destination Moon were for the large part rather primitive; but increasingly, one would find major productions of value: War of the Worlds, for instance. And then in 1967 perhaps there appeared Fantastic Voyage, and later still what is until now the real climax of the science fictional movie, 2001, on which Arthur Clarke worked.

In television too there have been increasing examples of science fiction, of which the best obviously - I say obviously because to me it's obvious - was Star Trek, which for three seasons gathered an enormous following; not enough to keep it on indefinitely (nothing can stay on television indefinitely) but certainly much larger than the magazines ever had.
Indeed, the magazines themselves were directly competed with in a new way: increasingly there are collections of original stories appearing in anthology form in softcovers or even in hard covers, and more and more of these are appearing periodically. For instance, Damon Knight edits Orbit, which is a collection of original science fiction stories. Robert Silverberg is now going to put out an annual collection of original science fiction stories published by Doubleday.
This is important because one needs to have what we might call room for education of science fiction writers. The science fiction magazines not only served as a source of science fiction, but also as a proving ground for science fiction writers. A magazine that comes out every month and has to have four or five short stories in every issue offers an unexampled opportunity for the writing amateur to practice on and eventually make his mark. If the magazines failed, if people were expected to write only novels, it would be more difficult than it sounds: a novel is a large investment of time and effort and represents a huge jump for the amateur. The anthology of originals will supplement the magazines in that respect and even eventually perhaps, though I hope not because I myself may have a sentimental attachment to the magazines, eventually perhaps replace them.

There is a drain on science fiction writers these days: that is, there is a greater tendency for the magazine science fiction writer to switch to the movies or to television. There is a tendency to switch to science writing: the American public is more interested in science than it used to be, and it reads more nonfiction on science.

On the other hand, there is also an influx of a new kind of writer now; a writer who is not primarily interested in science even - maybe even anti-science - but who recognizes in science fiction an unexampled market for novel ideas, for experimentation. We have what we now call the new wave, composed of stories that represent experimentation, which are daring not only in their ideas but in their forms and in their treatments. And we have writers, such as Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and others whose stories might not have sold at all in the 1940s and 1950s but are now doing very well.

This is not to say that there aren't authors today who aren't writing stories in the strict Campbell tradition: Ben Bova for instance; Larry Niven - in fact, Larry Niven's recent Dream World might easily have been written by Hal Clement in the early 1940s.

To me, however, the real climax of science fiction is the fact that on July 20th Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. I was watching on television; and the appearance of Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit, the spaceship from which he descended, the quality of the terrain - everything about it was precisely what I had been reading about in the 1940s, precisely what I have seen in science fiction illustrations, precisely what I saw in Destination Moon. The world of the 1940s that I had been so immersed in had come to actual life exactly in 1969. That, to me, was my climax in science fiction.

[End of transcript. Return to Literature of SF Video Series page.]

updated 7/7/2013

Home | A Basic SF Library | Staff | | Educational Program | Films and Online Videos | SF News | SF Youth Program
CSSF Awards | Campbell Conference | James Gunn Essays | SF Hall of Fame | CSSF Blog | Resources | Donate