Professor Eric S. Rabkin is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he also heads the Genre Evolution Project, a collaborative student-faculty research effort that studies "literature as a living thing, able to adapt to society's desires and able to influence those desires." Among his numerous awards, he received the Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction scholarship in 2010.
Ten years ago I had the distinct privilege of working for Eric as an assistant in his undergraduate science fiction course, which examines the genre through a syllabus that ranges from Mary Shelley to William Gibson and includes my single favorite book, bar none: Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. So it was with no small dose of enthusiasm that I approached our conversation about The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, its importance to fans of these genres, and the fundamental role it plays in the Genre Evolution Project.
When did you first start reading The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), and how did it grow in importance as these genres came to constitute so much of your professional focus?
Eric Rabkin: I started reading F&SF when I was about nine, which would have been about 1955. My father was an avid science fiction reader, and I wanted to emulate him. Looking back, I now realize that his magazine choices reflected his own needs. Although there were all sorts of magazines available, including those for the neighboring genres of horror and "weird," he almost invariably read only Astounding/Analog and F&SF. Later he also read Asimov's and Omni, but not as avidly. What I've come to realize is that the "science" in science fiction had an enormous intellectual appeal for my father, and it did for me, too, an appeal that was often utterly disregarded in the more thrill-seeking magazines, not only in the neighboring genres but in other SF magazines like Planet Stories and Wonder Stories. Of course, the vast majority of those other SF magazines died off in the 1950s for a number of reasons--one of which was that the scientific "thrill" they sought to generate now came with the daily news of the nuclear-armed Cold War and the so called Space Race. But F&SF and Analog offered stories that addressed science as a way of thinking even if the explicit subject wasn't science or technology. Typically there would be some fantastic premise and its felt consequences would be explored thoughtfully. Given that the world had changed, what would that mean to society, to the characters? This was something that could be thought through. And that sense that one could use sense to make sense of the world, that was something my father needed and that these magazines provided.
Lots of writers, critics, and fans think that lots of soft stories are still SF.
Where does one draw that boundary line?
The question arises again and again, often driven by passion and beer.
Between his two favored magazines, though, there was a crucial difference. There are many people--including some writers, critics, and fans--who claim that the only real science fiction is what is called "hard science fiction," with the word "hard" carried over from the distinction between the hard and soft sciences, say physics and sociology, respectively. In hard SF, the reader gets the sense that one could double-check the writer's calculations to see if the narrated events make sense. Arthur C. Clarke's "Neutron Tide" exemplifies this. A space ship is drawn so close to a super-dense neutron star that the ship is horribly twisted by a gravity gradient from one end of the ship to the other. The only more or less recognizable bit of wreckage is a "star-mangled spanner." Whether one thinks the pun is worth the set-up or the set-up is itself a good story, the notion of a gravity gradient is central and plausible. In some works, the "hard" element is used much more substantially, as in Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg, one main setting of which is the surface of a neutron star. Forward's notions of what evolution would do with organisms living on that dense and rapidly spinning sphere are compelling. The human observers looking down evolve much more slowly, and what one's relations should be with the rising aliens is a question well worth asking in 1980, the year of the book's publication, the same year that the Soviet Union began its quagmire military engagement in Afghanistan and the U.S. held breathless vigil during the Iran-hostage crisis that arguably cost Jimmy Carter his re-election.
There is no doubt that hard SF is SF indeed. But lots of writers, critics, and fans think that lots of soft stories are still SF. Alternate histories, for example, may make very plausible extrapolations from the fork fictionally followed: the Counter-Reformation succeeded, the South won the American Civil War, the Axis won World War II, and so on. One can think these through, extrapolate "scientifically," and learn something. But sometimes the alternate world of the narrative is less tethered to our own. In Margaret Atwood's widely admired The Handmaid's Tale, there is no plausible event or explanation offered for how extreme religious patriarchy has come to dominate American society. That this isn't "hard" doesn't diminish the utility of the novel as a critique of ideologies in our world. Some SF, like Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950), are so far from "hard" (the first humans who land on the red planet find they can breathe its atmosphere) that some people, including established SF writers jealous of Bradbury's enthusiastic reception by the broad public, claimed his work wasn't science fiction at all, merely fantasy.
Where does one draw that boundary line? The question arises again and again, often driven by passion and beer. For me, the absolutely greatest feature of F&SF was that it simply didn't care to join that fight. If a work used any of the tropes of science fiction--time-travel, interesting aliens, outer space, new philosophies, you name it--what mattered wasn't that the reader could double-check the calculations or even merely be immersed in a scientific frame of mind. What mattered was that the stories were good stories, stories that offered a new idea, a new situation, a new twist that could renew our vision of something important in our lives. But the point wasn't mere newness; rather, the newness had to matter from a human standpoint. If Analog attempted to exemplify the center of hard SF, F&SF attempted to embrace all the possibilities of SF so long as they took the form of a good, human story.
One way to see this, I think, is to compare the covers of the magazines. F&SF often had the grim or harrowing or awe-inspiring covers that the other magazines had, but the others almost never had the humorous ones sometimes offered by F&SF. Take a look at the cover from February, 1986.
The foreground character is a clearly disgruntled woman, striding up onto the sidewalk from a New York subway station, dressed in the kind of metal halter and painful g-string we associate with Frank Frazetta covers for Conan novels. Three New York men in the background, dressed for a normal spring day, are grinning and leering, but her back is turned to them and her sneer shows she'll have none of their foolishness, although it's clear she feels darned foolish herself, walking barefoot on the cement with no real protection except her ornate, upraised broadsword. Has she just emerged from a mythic center of the Earth? No matter what the cause, this isn't a battle--although she looks, in a caricatured way, as if she were ready to battle--but rather the omnivorous modern city that is willing, even eager, to enjoy anything, and especially something unexpected. The cover shows acceptance of this barely-clad newcomer, but no sympathy. There's aggression of one sort or another on each man's face, aggression against which the broadsword as a defense just won't "hack it." A careful reader might notice that off to the side we see part of the front of a jewelry store. Through the window, we can barely read words that, once completed, must say, "SPECIAL Wedding Bands." Of course, our main character is not going to marry men like these at all. We notice that her left hand is visible and there is no wedding band. A self-reliant woman in New York might excite appetites, but not for her spirit. It's still her body that attracts.
F&SF, from its inception, took the broadest view of this crucial genre
and sought to publish works that arrested and repaid our attention.
A cover like this exemplifies what I think of as best in F&SF. This isn't hard SF at all. There's no hint of a rationale for this figure of literary myth emerging onto the streets of today. But the political comment, as funny as the cover may be, is serious. And the artistry, the more one thinks of it, impresses. Finally, the barely visible contents of the storefront suggest a respect for the reader. If we don't notice that "Special," the cover still works; if we do, it works more deeply. F&SF, as its very title indicated, from its inception, took the broadest view of this crucial genre and sought to publish works that arrested and repaid our attention. That F&SF was one of the four SF magazines that made it through the great periodical die-off of the 1950s shows the power of its combination of an inclusive notion of the literary field, attention to the human truth of the stories, and trust in the intelligence of its readers.
Today, any open-minded lover of literature will recognize that SF is everywhere. Think of Nobelists like William Golding (The Inheritors), Doris Lessing (Memoirs of a Survivor), and José Saramago (Blindness), and of best-selling authors like Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman's Union), Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) and Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story). These works are not hard SF, and they do not hearken to Analog/Astounding. But they are just what the readers of F&SF would want and admire. The more SF is amalgamated in every facet of modern culture, the more the inclusiveness of F&SF seems prophetic, important, and right.
The Genre Evolution Project has some lofty goals, including eventually applying its methodology to such vastly different cultural creations as "Medieval iconography or clothing fashion." What about fantasy and science fiction short stories--particularly as they appeared in magazines--suggested them as the first cultural creations to study?
ER: The premise of the Genre Evolution Project is that one can view culture as a complex adaptive system, a dynamic system in which all parts more or less affect all others. Just as evolutionarily successful anaerobic organisms pumped enough oxygen into the early Earth's atmosphere to allow the evolution of aerobic organisms, the success of any given cultural production--say, tail-fins on automobiles--changes the environment in which new productions occur, in that case ultimately causing a reaction that we see in the cleaner-lined designs that followed.
The most-viewed music video of 2010 was Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance,"
which, if you look at it, is a science fiction vignette.
We in the Genre Evolution Project could have used this notion of culture to study anything, but it seemed to us that we wanted to study something that was arguably important and socially ubiquitous. Studying changing fashions in cocktail dresses would work, but how many cocktail dresses are there, and who ever buys them? Certainly not working-class men. But SF, that's different. The majority of all-time box-office high-earning films are SF. SF is visible in fashion (mirrorshades), city- and theme-park planning (Masdar City... or EPCOT: Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, the world's most visited tourist attraction), architecture (Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao), even food (Tang, reputedly the breakfast drink of the astronauts). The most-viewed music video of 2010 was Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" which, if you look at it, is a science fiction vignette that even includes a subtle allusion to the SF movie Gattaca. We live in a science fiction world, fearing cyberattacks, mutant germs, and the heat death of our planet. Science fiction, unlike cocktail dresses, is truly ubiquitous, even if in many instances we are so accustomed to its themes, tropes, and elements that we no longer think of them as science fiction at all. And science fiction is important. In a world that is changing willy-nilly by the developments of science and technology, the only branch of literature--or, for that matter, film, opera, toy-making, and so on--that explicitly concerns itself with the consequences of these developments is science fiction. With its inclusive view, F&SF is the best literary model of that.
Why did we choose not just science fiction but the science fiction short story? Because, as with any study, we needed an intellectually sensible and reliable way to limit our data-gathering, to decide what is inside our field of study and what is outside. Science fiction, as you know, suddenly became self-aware when Hugo Gernsback named the field (although he initially called it "scientifiction") in the editorial of the April 1926 issue of Amazing, the very first of what we would now called science fiction magazines. How does one study SF? Does one include Doris Lessing's work, she of The Golden Notebook? What about Ray Bradbury? We decided that since production and consumption define a culture, we would rely on the culture's own definition. We evaded the battles over definition by simply saying that our object of inquiry was fiction of 12,000 words or fewer published in a self-described American science fiction magazine between 1926 and the end of the 20th century.
And in doing so, we have, in fact, learned much not only about science fiction but about culture, so it turns out to have been a good choice, one we are now expanding by attention to news periodicals, films, video games, and the visual arts, namely the covers of the magazines within which were published the stories we analyzed.
Students work in pairs collecting data from the stories you study. With the advent of digital reading (text distribution, content databases, etc.), will the Genre Evolution Project's data-gathering process change? At the risk of proposing "a future," could technology end up studying culture?
ER: When we read and code a story in the Genre Evolution Project, we attend to many features of the story. Some of these, like length in words, would be very easy for a single person to discover if the stories were all digitized. In that sense, digitization will ease our load. Other features, however, can't--or at least not yet--be dealt with by machine. Is the main character two-dimensional, flat, or three-dimensional, well rounded? That's a judgment call. And since different people with different experiences often make different judgments of the same phenomenon, we do and will continue to double-read the stories we code.
However, if all the stories we consider were digitized, we would be able to augment our studies, and we have begun doing this. Since we haven't yet published this aspect of our growing effort, I won't describe it here beyond saying that the field of corpus linguistics which is often used to look at enormous samples (sometimes billions of words) of writing and/or speech, provides tools that allow us to consider a representative sample of a given genre, and that is precisely what the Genre Evolution Project has. And within that sample, because of its all-embracing editorial tradition, F&SF is one of the periodicals we study most extensively.
Has digital reading changed the genre magazine, aside from the ways that it has changed the periodicals landscape more generally? And if so, how?
ER: I haven't studied this question carefully, but I do have some tentative observations and hypotheses. It seems to me that the key distinction is not between periodicals in general and genre magazines but between time-bound and timeless publication. As a scholar, I sometimes want to find an old newspaper article; however, most of the articles that I read, I read once and discard, whether I read them on paper or on a screen. Newspaper articles are more or less time-bound for most purposes. There are, though, two broad kinds of timeless writing.
The first kind of timeless writing has reference value. If a gourmet magazine publishes recipes or a health magazine publishes exercise advice, readers may want to retrieve those articles later. Indeed, people who don't read those periodicals may want to drill into the periodical's database to find those articles. In our world of metadata, crowd-tagging, and search engines, we expect to be able to find and retrieve those articles. To be candid, as a scholar, I no longer read the articles in a journal when I receive it. I read the abstracts to see if one of the articles interests me right now, but if not I put the journal aside, counting on digital searching to bring that article--and many others--to my attention when I do need to read it. This sort of timeless writing, reference-value writing, may ultimately migrate entirely to the web with a print-on-demand option for those who favor that format. The Oxford English Dictionary, the epitome of reference-value writing, has already migrated fully to the web.
We all face the problem of trying to drink from an uncapped fire hydrant.
It's nearly impossible, of course, and typically uncomfortable
even when you get water in your mouth.
The second kind of timeless writing has aesthetic value. Yesterday a friend told me about the work of a writer who is not very prolific but "every one of his stories has changed my life." I've ordered the one collection of stories that author has published. I didn't order that book because I want to read about x or y in specific or genre alpha or beta in general. I ordered it because it had, for my friend, an independent value that he felt sure I, too, would appreciate. If a genre magazine publishes mere retreads of stories we've all read before, it will, in the current digital environment, die. Or so it seems to me. The world is full of people writing, say, science fiction stories. They put them on the web for free. Their Facebook friends read them. But do they start some buzz? Only if the story is really good; otherwise, it stays within that circle of friends. The challenge for a genre magazine now, SF or any other genre, is to publish work so good that you wouldn't expect it to be given away for free or, if so given, as are Cory Doctorow's books, so desirable that people will pay for them anyway. With books, that's an easier proposition than with short stories because few of us ever shelved our short stories to begin with, except as magazines. To retain that value, worthy of saving, SF magazines will have to be that good.
The Genre Evolution Project studies literature "as a living thing, able to adapt to society's desires and able to influence those desires." In that context, how has digital reading influenced fantasy and sci-fi as genres? How will it continue to do so? And how has (or will) that influence work in the opposite direction?
ER: People today have no more hours in their days than anyone ever did, but the demands for our attention and the options from which we can choose have multiplied astronomically. We all face the problem of trying to drink from an uncapped fire hydrant. It's nearly impossible, of course, and typically uncomfortable even when you get water in your mouth. To survive, we rely on channels: Fox News for some, MSNBC for others; The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter. In other words, like it or not, we all rely on editors. If my analysis is correct, the genre magazines that survive will be those with editors who have a clear vision of what they are doing, make that vision clear to their readers both explicitly and by the work they choose to pass along, and include in that vision a sense of what, at least for those readers, makes the stories timeless. People argue often that the rise of easy digital publication is the death of this or that, and publishing any old this or that may prove them right. But I believe the great opportunity here is that digital publication puts an even higher premium on superb editing and that the best editors will develop writers and readers, like those who notice the "SPECIAL" element of the cover of F&SF, who value and support work that gets only better. In a sense, what one will buy when one subscribes to a genre magazine isn't the work of the writers but the work of the editors. Digital publication will press editors to be as clear and demanding as they can be, and, if properly used, the digital world will provide the tools for those editors to find their readers. ¥
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