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Thinking About Thinking About Science Fiction

by Barry N. Malzberg

This has always been a self-referential field; years before the magic realists, the fabulists, the post-modern allegorists and the students of John Gardner (1933-1982) made all of this fashionable, L. Ron Hubbard was writing of the tormenting activities of characters created by a drunken hack science fiction writer ("Typewriter in the Sky", 1940), Peter Phillips was sending a voyager into the unconscious of a science fiction writer who had become trapped in his own inventions. A prominent character in Fred Brown's Martians, Go Home! (1954) was a science fiction writer eagerly seeking material amidst the invading Martians and fearful that distraction would slow the pulp mills. Word-rates, the questioning of a curious society and what might conservatively be called self-doubt put us on the cutting edge from the beginning. Nonetheless, until the present issue, there was no attempt to bibliographicize what is here called "recursive" and which I would prefer to term "decadent" science fiction. As ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the bibliographical impulse may be said to pursue extrinsic reality at a certain cautious—but fixated—distance.

It is possible that this self-referentiality is built into science fiction in a way which is extant in no other form; our reality is science fiction, the very process of entering Plato's Cave must be to make certain ragged connections between the assumed and the observed, often to neither advantage. But this is all too deep for me, I would prefer the term "decadent science fiction" all right and would rely upon that definition of decadence into which I stumbled in The Engines of the Night (1982)... the point at which form overtakes function.

We see decadence all around us, of course—late-millennial angst and the workout clinic, the fictions of Andy Warhol and the enacted passions of baseball tycoons—but dear old science fiction, responding to certain hard jolts of function and feedback denied most of the followers of John Gardner (nanotechnology, the Challenger explosion, heat-seeking shields after all exist, are other than speculative now) can be expected to avoid many, if not most, of the traps of decadence. In the meantime, this bibliography can be seen as a laudable attempt to commemorate a stream in science fiction and fantasy which, however important from the outset, have not been rigorously aligned. Perhaps there was some fear of this; we already had trouble being regarded as relevant or sensible, further noting how the fantasist could turn cheerfully or guiltily upon her own devices would only make us appear more ridiculous to the hostile. "Decadent" is the word.

I have committed more of these sins, in short or in longer form than any living (or, for that matter, deceased) science fiction writer; the quality may not be high nor the originality (Kurt Vonnegut, after all, was sending up the field long before, read the famous Milford passage in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; remember that the collaborator in Slaughterhouse Five was named "Howard Campbell") but as Francis Laney, Jr. might say, no one else has been "so damned sincere". In sincerity, I wonder where all of this is taking us, but note that is probably will be my fate to never know. God bless you, Mr. Rosewater.

August 1990, Teaneck, New Jersey

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