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Fear of Fiction: Campbell's World and Other Obsolete Paradigms

a feature by Claude Lalumière

The "golden age" of Campbellian science fiction is one of the worst things that ever happened to the genre. It's right up there with Star Trek and Star Wars as a cataclysm, its after-effects still causing pervasive damage, killing off transgressive fictioneers with sneers of demented nostalgia. In the resulting post-apocalyptic landscape, Campbellian SF rules despotically as the exemplar against which all new SF must be measured.

Just look at the contents of the current crop of year's best SF anthologies or glance at the shortlists of the genre awards. With a few scattered exceptions, it's 1950 all over again.

I was first attracted to SF because of its transgressive nature. It's that potential for transgression that still keeps me interested, that potential to subvert consensus reality and to reimagine the world. As always, the world is in dire need of reimagining, and SF -- with its license to speculate wildly -- is the branch of literature with the tools best suited to radical reconceptualizations of reality.

Human existence is more than ever one of constant change. SF could not only address the anxieties and conflicts arising from such a rapid pace of societal transformation but also embrace never-before imagined potentialities, celebrate delirious perversions, dream up subversive possibilities.

Campbellian SF in both its classical and contemporary incarnations espouses an ideology that distrusts the heteroglossic diversity of life on Earth. The subtext of Campbellian SF is the dogma of the twentieth century's emblematic religion, the scientific worldview of white Christian European/Euroamerican culture: the sanctity of "progress", anthropocentric domination, and the dichotomic opposition of nature and culture that perpetuates the alienation of humanity from its environment. The better SF espouses and articulates these beliefs, the more it is lauded by the SF establishment.

Campbellian SF is a fundamentally conservative appropriation of the transgressive genre fashioned by the modern Hephaestus, H.G. Wells. Wells's fictions didn't reinforce the dominant ideology. He used SF as a means to transgress against imperialism (The War of the Worlds), ethnocentrism ("The Country of the Blind"), class and capitalism (The Time Machine), and the scientific worldview itself (The Island of Dr. Moreau).

And then came Hugo the Baptist and Jesus W. Christ: Hugo Gernsback drenching SF in his childish infatuation with gadgets, followed by John W. Campbell, preaching the gospel of the scientific worldview. This new school of SF replaced Wells's transgressions against consensus reality with stories that glorified white human domination over all other lifeforms. In diluted form (to account for changing social norms), that ideology still taints SF. Contrasting with Wells's utopian socialism, many of today's Campbellian SF writers are right-wing libertarians.

There have been waves of new transgressive SFs; both the New Wave and cyberpunk attempted to break the stranglehold of Campbellian SF. Both were met with reactionary nostalgia within SF, despite that, because of both movements, the outside world paid attention to SF -- abortively pertinent before it retreated, in both cases, into its Campbellian pseudowomb.

Subversive SF -- Paul Di Filippo's brilliantly transgressive utopia "Campbell's World" is its brashest call to arms -- is shunned by the SF establishment, which fears threats to the hegemony of its conservative agenda.

Nowadays, commercial SF has retreated even further into insular nostalgia, alienating new readers by glorifying an outdated model of fiction that reinforces an ideology that was already obsolete 50 years ago. SF's reactionary conservatism is hostile to the subversive energy of youth, to the rapidly changing polycultural zeitgeist, and to transgressive dreams.

No wonder that young people -- tuned in to and hungry for all these things that SF should be indulging in -- aren't reading SF anymore.

© Claude Lalumière 2002, 2003.
Claude Lalumière is the editor of three anthologies that published in 2003: Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic and (in collaboration with Marty Halpern) Witpunk.

This piece first appeared as the guest editorial in The Third Alternative #31, Summer 2002.

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