Review of The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976: “But What Good Is It?”

Cover image of Lester Del Rey’s “The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976

Finally finished The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976 by Lester Del Rey and I must say it is both very informative, and for long stretches, pretty boring.

This is one of two (probably) reviews, and today’s write up is the most “controversial” of the two.

The book was published in 1980 so 40 years of science fiction have passed since Del Rey opined “But What Good Is It?” in the 34th chapter. To Del Rey, the purpose of science fiction was to entertain, but then he remarked on page 348:

What disturbs me more is the whole concept of purpose as applied to any literature. To the Marxists, intent upon subordinating everything to the good of the state, the arts must serve a direct purpose of life — usually propaganda, I’m afraid. But why people in this country accept such Marxist ideas is a puzzle.

Del Rey died on May 10, 1993, about 13 years after penning this tome, and I’m glad he didn’t see what’s happening to field of science fiction today.

I know some of you might say that one of the purposes of science fiction is to introduce new ideas, to support equality, equity, or whatever it’s become, to bring awareness to readers of various social issues. That’s true as far as it goes. Writers from Isaac Asimov, to Ray Bradbury, to Rod Serling (who would have been 96 years old last Christmas Day) wrote many such tales. However usually they were talented enough to be able to get across their points without their audiences being aware of it in most cases.

Still Del Rey believed (pg 349)

If fiction has any major function, that function is to entertain the reader. All other functions are better served by nonfiction, or sometimes by poetry, lucidity at more than one level of meaning.

And

Certainly the purpose of science fiction has always been to entertain, and while it can only entertain a certain portion of the public, that is true of most other fiction. It is true that a few writers recently claim they intend some purpose in their writing fiction other than entertainment; but their publishers, seeking a profit, still try to sell books to entertain, and the vast majority of readers buy books and magazines for that purpose.

That was certainly true of me as a teen growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s. I wasn’t aware of the backgrounds of these SF/F writers or anything about them, and I didn’t care. I bought science fiction because reading it was fun. To this day, that’s still my primary motivation, and periodically, I end up being disappointed.

Early in 2019, I attempted to read the 1992 SF novel Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is very dedicated to science in general and environmentalism in particular. Most of his writing, even when he’s depicting adventurous fighting or passionate sex, is overlaid by his style of authoring which I would call lecturing. If I want a lecture on that topic, I’ll go back to school or listen to the latest recording by Greta Thunberg . I returned the novel to the library (thank God I didn’t pay for it) only half-read.

I must say I made it through N.K. Jemisin’s 2015 Hugo award winning novel The Fifth Season, but just barely. I almost quit several times within the first 60 pages, but pressed on because I really wanted to know why this book won a Hugo award. It wasn’t until the last bit of the book that it finally got interesting, but unfortunately, Jemisin’s central message seems to be “I’m depressed and angry.”

I admire the talent of the late Octavia E. Butler. Her 2000 book Parable of the Sower, though well written, was again primarily dark and depressing. This doesn’t usually inspire me to read other works by the same artist.

Earlier in the book, Del Rey talks about “The New Wave” which had its genesis in the mid-1960s, progressing into the 1970s and beyond. It was supposed to usher in a new era of science fiction based on social and political issues, but compared to today’s SF/F, it’s pretty tame. Ending his chronology in 1976, Del Rey couldn’t possibly have realized the massive storm that was coming; a SF/F field largely (but not exclusively) dedicated to identity politics and social indoctrination. Would he have believed the Marxists had taken over his beloved genre to which he had devoted decades of his life?

In the last chapter of the book, and in fact on the last page (377), he said this:

It seems to me that science fiction and fantasy can look for a long and very successful future — and a highly diverse one.

And I hope the man who tries to tell the story of the world of science fiction from 1976 to 2026 will find as much satisfaction in the events he chronicles as I find in these.

First of all, he couldn’t predict pronoun fluidity, so his use of “he” would be criticized if not condemned today, and I remind you that on the eve of 2021, we have hardly six years until science fiction officially turns 100.

I’m not sure if Del Rey would even recognize most of the science fiction of today. Oh to be sure, there are worthy successors to his vision. Newer science fiction novels I’ve found quite excellent are Max Berry’s 2013 novel Lexicon, Neal Asher’s 2015 novel Dark Intelligence: Transformation Book One, and indie author Iain Kelly’s 2018 book A Justified State (the first in a trilogy I’m looking forward to reading).

Yes, there is some good science fiction and fantasy in the world still, so we don’t have to surrender to those authors and publishers who have become what Lester Del Rey feared the most.

5 thoughts on “Review of The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976: “But What Good Is It?”

  1. It seems to me that authors likely write for one or more of several purposes. One is to earn money by selling their stories to an interested public. That’s a self-interest, but it can be an enlightened one that recognizes the desires of a readership to be entertained, informed, challenged, or, perhaps, reassured. It seems that a recent trend is to preach at or manipulate the readers, or even to grasp at changing an entire society to fit the writer’s vision. That may be merely an expression of narcissistic hubris. Sometimes it may even seem that the author’s desire is antagonistic, to insult the readers’ intelligence or morality. Older versions of sci-fi seem more interested in sharing optimistic considerations of “what-if?”, or “wouldn’t it be better if?”, or even tocsins of “can we avoid this kind of unpleasantness?” Of course, there are also simply time-honored adventure stories made new by setting them in an unusual environment. These may be mostly entertainment for readers to enjoy, which represent a kind of public service by which a writer may earn a living, not unlike the selling of groceries or other consumables. One may well ask what is the apparent intention of a writer, and what is his or her desired relationship with a readership. Is it antagonistic or friendly? Is it edifying or destructive? If a writer appears to seek destruction or deconstruction for the self or the readership, one may well ask why anyone should read any of their writings. Perhaps sometimes one should simply ignore them entirely.

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    • I think to answer your question and Del Rey’s, there’s been a massive effort in western culture to elevate “marginalized voices,” to promote “anti-racism,” and quite a few other topics that have come on the progressive/leftist (Marxist?) radar in the last decade or so. Of not every writer and certainly not a lot of readers buy into all that, but to the degree that these elements are touted as “virtue” and not embracing them tends to get folks labeled as some sort of racist, sexist, or phobic, younger readers (we old school fans are a dying breed) are jumping onto that bandwagon. It’s become the “new normal” in Science Fiction and Fantasy. There’s been a powerful culture shift since Del Rey penned his book, and I don’t doubt he’d be aghast if he were alive to attend a WorldCon today. It’s why that’s a small but growing “superversive” movement in SF/F, to create stories that are truly uplifting and entertaining rather than preachy and “woke” laden. Of course, the western entertainment industry as a whole is traveling along the same trajectory, and with news and social media and the public education system creating a new audience for that perspective, we of the old guard can boycott those works, but they’ll still make plenty of money. All we can really do, especially since the indie publishing industry is beginning to overshadow the old “big box publishers” is to create and promote those stories we prefer to see, stories that entertain and fill the reader with a sense of wonder. Now if we can convince young people to go for that, we’d have something. The thing is, you have to get to them fairly young, and teach them critical thinking so they won’t automatically be taken over by progressive teachings.

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      • Somehow I think youngsters of the present and future will respond favorably to the same kinds of stories that so captivated us in our own youth (at least if someone will write them). They will, of course, need to be of sufficient quality to compete with the narcissistic, Marxist, preachy “woke” stories. How hard is it to compete with narcissism?

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