The Present Future
The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Nineteenth Series edited by Edward L. Ferman Doubleday. $5.95
YOUR BASIC Red-Blooded Post-War American Kid grew up reading science fiction. He sheltered C.S. Lewis's Perelandra beneath the edge of a junior high school desk; he tripped across decades of The Martian Chrnoicles on hot, tedious summer afternoons; he liked Kurt Vonnegut for years before Slaughterhouse Five became a best-seller. Then the world changed, and he probably has not read much science fiction since.
Looking back now, this same American Kid might imagine that science fiction has changed a lot in the last five or six years. He could speculate on several trends in particular, one of which is symbolized by the landing of a three-legged, mirror-eyed moon probe which, by failing to sink into dusty oblivion, made Arthur C. Clarke's classic A Fall of Moondust, with its depiction of vast seas of lunar dust, immediately obsolete. Even as writers continued to anticipate it, the future had begun to arrive.
From the day, a couple of years later, when another Clarke product reached the film screen as Stanley Kubrick's 2001, two symbolisms could be drawn. First, as popular enthusiasm was to demonstrate, science fiction had finally begun to come down from the segregated library shelves up beside the murder mysteries, and out of late-show monster movies, into the serious mind. But also, in the same month as that first New York screening. Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. At that point one could note, in retrospect, the beginning of a political and cultural mood during which a lot of Red-blooded American Kids would stop reading science fiction.
NOW, WITH THE nineteenth and most recent series of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, a one-time science fiction freak can put his musings to the test. Here is only one type of science fiction, anthologized from a monthly which has been thriving ever since the Forties. These stories share a lot with earlier work--the same few standard plots predominate; most of the styles are execrable.
Moreover, in spite of any general trend toward a broadening audience for Kubrick or Vonnegut, Fantasy and Science Fiction is permeated by a sense of its special readership. The editorial tone seems directed toward a circle as avid as the readers of pulp mystery magazines and as semi-expert as the clientele of Popular Mechanics. A typical introduction to one of the stories might read: "Now here's a story by an old friend of F& SF readers, one of the best young writers in the field. We think it's a story you're really going to like. The plot is involving in the best sort of way, and the end is as stunning as anything we've seen." Just as typically, the story that follows seems as if it had been typed out in the basement on weekends, for fun and extra cash.
This science fiction is popular culture, at once clumsy and expressive. However, it is also the province of an elite; there is a type of "SF" reader who cannot stand the popular designation of "sci-fi."
This anthology reveals the popular side of science fiction in the inundation of the old science fiction by a flood of new, contemporary concerns--the sex, dope, and politics of the late '60's projected into the old patterns of the future. To the ever-present need for a usable past reflecting and justifying the present, has been added the need for a similarly usable future.
STILL PRESENT in that future is the naive love of technology which is probably the purest well-spring of science fiction, though now it often appears strangely mixed. Just a spoonful of complexity gets into "The Man Who Learned Loving." Theodore Sturgeon's account of a man who deserves commendation not for the perpetual motion machine which he has invented but for the relentless self-sacrificing maneuvering through which he assures that it is used for the good of all mankind.
Robin Scott Wilson's "Gone Fishin'" projects an incredible mingling of cold war and black power ideologies. No classic science fiction fan could do anything but gape and laugh at a hero who is described as a fourteen-year old German Negro serving the Americans as an anti-Soviet, telepathic spy.
Then there's Robert Silverberg's "Sundance", embodying the dilemma of Tom Two Ribbons, "a biologist-spaceman of American Indian descent," and a member of an expedition to eliminate the race of the Eaters, animal pests who obstruct the colonization of an alien planet. When Tom begins to think he perceives an elaborate set of rituals and social relations among the Eaters, is it interplanetary genocide or only the failure of his "psychological reconstruct" to protect him from his own historic past?
But for sheer relevance, none of the stories can match "Calliope, Gherkin, and the Yankee Doodle Thing," which manages in its few pages to parody almost the entire late-'60's cultural scene. The Yankee Doddle Thing, a sort of Rosemary's baby with green fur, is sired in the midst of a drug-induced orgy. A lesson about the evils of dope? Alas, no; the father turns out to be not an acid-distorted human but a sex-starved extraterrestrial visitor who finds his son quite beautiful. And in this future, just incidentally, there are student riots practically every day, and all people over thirty--termed "duffies"--have been relegated to political limbo.
WHAT ARE THESE stories good for? The still chuckling fan of classical science fiction could despair in their naivete. He could wonder if science fiction ever could or should be great literature. He might decide that as it relates to "serious" literature, science fiction is somewhat like the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas--it can create radically different ways of looking at things, it can reflect a part of the popular mind, but finally it will have accomplished the most by having its best ideas stolen by other, better manipulators. Hence, Anthony Burgess and Kubrick in the just barely future of A Clockwork Orange, and the imaginary but parallel worlds of Vladimir Nabokov.
Or perhaps he would think this is clearly too much. Science fiction is popular culture and expressive in its own special way. Didn't the great monster movies of the fifties embody perfectly the Joe McCarthy, shadow-of-the-bomb paranoia of a whole nation? Why, in a society where the future and its shocks come more and more quickly, shouldn't caricature of the future reveal as much as one of the present?
Or, your basic Red-blooded Post-war American Kid might find for himself yet another way out. He might gather his speculations, justifications, and laughter and yearn simply for the good old days before moon landings and relevance.