Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction

Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction

by David G. Hartwell


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Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction gives an insider's view of the strange and wonderful world of science fiction, by one of the most respected editors in the field, David G. Hartwell (1941-2016).

David G. Hartwell edited science fiction and fantasy for over twenty years. In that time, he worked with acclaimed and popular writers such as Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, Nancy Kress, L.E. Modesitt, Terry Bisson, Lisa Goldstein, and Philip Jose Farmer, and discovered hot new talents like Kathleen Ann Goonan and Patrick O'Leary. Now in Age of Wonder, Hartwell describes the field he loved, worked in, and shaped as editor, critic, and anthologist.

Like those other American art forms, jazz, comics, and rock 'n' roll, science fiction is the product of a rich and fascinating subculture. Age of Wonder is a fascinating tour of the origins, history, and culture of the science fiction world, written with insight and genuine affection for this wonder-filled literature, and addressed to newcomers and longtime SF readers alike.

Age of Wonder remains "the landmark work" Roger Zelazny called the first edition. The book contains sections that offer advice on teaching courses in science fiction, disquisitions on the controversial subgenre of hard SF, and practical explanations of the economics of publishing science fiction and fantasy. Age of Wonder still lives up to Hugo and Nebula Award winner Vonda McIntyre's description: "An entertaining and provocative book that will inspire discussion and argument for years to come."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765393319
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 01/24/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David G. Hartwell (1941-2016) was one of science fiction's most experienced and influential editors. A winner of the World Fantasy Award, Hartwell edited many anthologies including The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction (with Kathryn Cramer), The World Treasury of Science Fiction. He received a total of forty-one Hugo nominations and won three times and edited many Nebula Award-winning works as well.

Read an Excerpt

Age of Wonders

Exploring the World of Science Fiction

By David G. Hartwell

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 1984 David G. Hartwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-9813-0



— Peter Graham

Immersed in science fiction. Bathing in it, drowning in it; for the adolescent who leans this way it can be better than sex. More accessible, more compelling. And the outsider can only wonder, What's the matter with him? What is he into, what's the attraction, why is it so intense?

Grown men and women, sixty years old, twenty-five years old, sit around and talk about "the golden age of science fiction," remembering when every story in every magazine was a masterwork of daring, original thought. Some say the golden age was circa 1928; some say 1939; some favor 1953, or 1970, or 1984. The arguments rage till the small of the morning, and nothing is ever resolved.

Because the real golden age of science fiction is twelve.

This is a book about the science fiction field and that body of contemporary writing known as science fiction, or SF. Over the years there have been a number of books on the writing the field has produced, its artwork and illustration, histories, memoirs, even books devoted to the amateur publications of the fans. But no general attempt to describe both the literature and the specific subculture out of which the literature flows has ever been presented to the world at large. Donald A. Wollheim, in The Universe Makers, and Lester del Rey, in The World of Science Fiction 1926–1976, come closer than any others and you might try them, though both are dated. Damon Knight's The Futurians gives some perspective on the SF world as it grew up and on one particularly influential circle (and is full of great gossip). Theodore Cogswell's P.I.T.F.C .S. captures another moment. Various autobiographies such as Samuel R. Delany's The Motion of Light in Water, Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was, and Jack Williamson's Wonder's Child present other pieces of the puzzle. But never one book for the whole.

For one thing, the world at large, especially all who do not read and do not wish to read SF, couldn't have cared less. "Everyone" knows that science fiction is not serious literature and that since the word "science" occurs in the name you wouldn't be interested or able to understand if you did try to read it — so why try?

Despite the fact that twelve-year-olds who read it understand it perfectly, and that millions of readers over the years have found it great fun (it is supposed to be fun), the majority of educated readers in the English-speaking world spurn SF without reading it or knowing any more about it than what "everyone" knows. Well, this book is not an attempt to convert anyone (although later on I do recommend some SF for people who have not read in the field before). What I do intend is to offer a book that informs you about an amusing and significant phenomenon that reaches into every home and family in the country and influences the way we all see the world around us.

This is an outsider's guidebook and road map through the world of science fiction, pointing out the historical monuments, backyard follies, highways, and back streets of the SF community — a tour of main events and sideshows, and a running commentary on why the SF world is the way it is. I hope it will be particularly useful for the casually curious, the neophyte reader, and of course the person who knows people in SF and wonders why they are that way. Is your child threatened by this strange stuff, or by the companionship of lovers of science fiction? Does SF rot the mind and ruin the character? Just how wild and crazy are those SF people, and what do they really do, where do they come from, why do they stay in the SF world? This tour, if successful, should take you not only through the nooks and crannies of the SF world, but into some unsuspected aspects of the everyday world as well.

* * *

Written science fiction, like cooking, mathematics, or rock'n'roll, is a whole bunch of things that some people can understand or do and some not. We all know people who love cooking, math, or rock (perhaps all three), and others who can hardly boil water, add two plus two, or distinguish music from noise. Your present tour guide stopped trying to convert people to instant appreciation of science fiction years ago when he finally understood that most new readers have to go through a process of SF education and familiarization before they can love it. Just because someone can read does not mean that he necessarily can read SF, just as the ability to write Arabic numerals and add and subtract doesn't mean you necessarily can or want to perform long division.

So I have set out to describe science fiction without assuming that you have read any or would even know what to do if you were faced with the text of an SF story. I will discuss as clearly as possible all the barriers you might have against understanding SF and all the barriers that SF has erected to keep from being understood by outsiders — for like the world of the circus and the carny, the SF world only wants insiders behind the scenes. And more, the SF world does not want an audience (such as the "mass audience") who won't take the time to learn the rules and conventions of the game. SF is special within its community, which has built complex fortifications and groundworks surrounding its treasures; and for most people, the rewards of reading SF or being an SF-type person are worthless or pernicious or even a bit scary. To one who is comfortable and has adjusted to the compromises of our culture, being or becoming something of an outsider has no advantages.

Wait for a moment though, before you make up your mind that you don't really have to become acquainted with what is going on in this other reality. The underground world of SF interpenetrates with your daily world so thoroughly in so many ways that finding out what those relatively few people who live in the SF world are like may let you understand a lot more about how your own world operates. Besides, as Thomas Pynchon so amusingly posited in his eccentric novella The Crying of Lot 49, if you begin to look beneath the surface of everyday life, almost everyone is involved in some sort of underground activity. This kind of activity is so much a part of what everyone does (without ever seeing the big picture) that if you pull back and look at it all, the real world seems very different. That is, in one very real sense, what this book is about.

When you spot a science fiction devotee on a bus, in a library, or on lunch break in the cafeteria, she or he is identifiable only by a display of some kind: She is reading a flashy paperback that says "Science Fiction" on the cover; he is wearing a STAR TREK LIVES! T-shirt over his bathing trunks at the beach; she is quietly asking the bookseller if there is a copy of Women of Wonder in the store; he is arguing loudly with a friend that Terry Pratchett is much better than Piers Anthony (who is not truly funny) while munching a sandwich and sipping Coke.

Otherwise, there are no reliable outward signs, unless you happen to stop over at a hotel or motel anywhere in the U.S. where one of the at least weekly science fiction conventions is being held — after one look, you switch accommodations, because the whole place is filled with people in costumes, Bacchanalian howls, teenagers in capes with swords, normally dressed adults wearing garish name tags that identify them as Gork or Kalinga Joe or Conan or David G. Hartwell or Beardsley Trunion. Your immediate perception of this social situation is either "Feh!" or "Let me back off and view these weirdos from a safe distance, say at the end of tomorrow's newscast!"

The science fiction person, you see, always lives in the SF world, but under cover of normality most of the time — except while attending a gathering of like minds such as the SF conventions given in understated flashes above. The science fiction reader may be your attorney, your dentist, your children's schoolteacher, the film projectionist at your local theater, your wife or husband or child, happily living in two worlds at once, the real world of science fiction and the only apparent reality of everyday life.

If you have lived with or worked with a science fiction person, you will have noticed how intensely she seems to be involved in science fiction, how much she reads it, watches it, recommends to those around her that they try it, because it is her special kind of fun. And if you examine her behavior in everyday life, you may well notice an impatience with the way things are, an ironic, sometimes sarcastic attitude toward everyday things (particularly imposed tasks of a wearisome nature), a desire for change. This complex of attitudes is closely congruent to the complex of attitudes found in the normal human teenager.

In fact, a majority of all science fiction is read by readers who are under the age of twenty-one. The great change in the last twenty years is that most of the stuff popular with younger readers in large numbers is generally thought of as trash by adult SF readers — film and gaming tie-ins, series novels — really no change at all if you squint at it. The question is not how they got that way but why it should surprise anyone that they are. Teenagers are not fully integrated into the tedium of adult life and tend to view such everyday life with healthy suspicion. Quite logical. The science fiction reader preserves this attitude as long in life as his association with science fiction continues, more often these days into full maturity. (Today, the majority of readers of SF are adults who read fewer books a month than teenagers but keep at it for life.) It makes him act strangely sometimes. But mostly he feeds his head with more science fiction and continues to get the job done, whatever it is.

Nearly a thousand readers of Locus, the newspaper of the science fiction field (a semiprofessional monthly published by California fan Charles N. Brown), responded to a survey in the early 1980s, indicating that the initial involvement in science fiction of almost every respondent happened between the ages of ten and fourteen. After decades of word-of-mouth evidence, this survey simply confirmed what everyone in the SF field already knew, so no one has bothered to do another one since. This lends substance to the tradition in the science fiction world that active involvement starts early and lasts at least until the early twenties. Science fiction is an addiction (or habit) so reasonable in any teenager who can read (and many who can't very well, in this age of Star Trek and fantasy gaming) that it is superficially a curiosity that it doesn't always last. But it doesn't, and most of us do end up well-adjusted more or less, resigned to life as it is known to be beyond 1984 (and soon beyond 2001).

The science fiction drug is available everywhere to kids, in superhero comics, on TV, in the movies, in books and magazines. It is impossible to avoid exposure, to avoid the least hint of excitement at Marvel Comics superheroes and Star Trek reruns and Star Wars, impossible not to become habituated even before kindergarten to the language, clichés, basic concepts of science fiction. Children's culture in the contemporary U.S. is a supersaturated SF environment. By the time a kid can read comic books and attend a movie unaccompanied by an adult, his mind is a fertile environment for the harder stuff. Even the cardboard monsters of TV reruns feed the excitement. The science fiction habit is established early.

In some cases, accompanied by the hosannas of proud parents, a bright kid focuses his excitement on the science part and goes on to construct winning exhibits in school science fairs, avoid being arrested for computer hacking, obtain scholarships, and support proud parents in their old age with his honorable gains as a career corporate technologist. Most often, a kid freezes at the gosh-wow TV/comics/movies stage and carries an infatuation with fantastic and absurd adventure into later life. But sometimes, usually by the age of twelve, a kid progresses to reading science fiction in paperback, in magazines, book club editions — wherever he can find it, because written SF offers more concentrated excitement. This is the beginning of addiction; he buys, borrows, even steals all the science fiction he can get his hands on and reads omnivorously for months or even years, sometimes until the end of high school years, sometimes a book or more a day. But the classic symptom is intense immersion in written SF for at least six months around age twelve.

Publishers adore this phenomenon, akin to the addiction to mystery and detective fiction that flourished in the decades prior to the mid-sixties. One major publisher of SF remarked to me in the 1980s that his books are supported by twelve-year-olds of all ages. Every professional writer, editor, and publisher in the science fiction field knows that the structure of science fiction publishing is founded on the large teenage audience, which guarantees a minimally acceptable market for almost every paperback book or magazine published — it requires extreme ignorance and determination, akin to constipating oneself by an act of will, to be unsuccessful when selling science fiction to the omnivorous teenage audience of smart, alienated readers. Yet some have failed. And in the 1990s there has finally been established a large enough population of adult readers to support a regular hardcover publishing industry in science fiction — and no one believes the average hardcover is being bought by a teenager. More about this later.

What happens to science fiction omnivores? Well, obviously, most of them discover the compulsive excitement of the opposite (or same) sex, and stop reading much of anything for pleasure, most of them permanently. However, once you have been an omnivore, your life has been permanently altered, if only in minor ways. Years later, you may experience an irrational desire to watch Battlestar Galactica reruns on TV, even though you know it's dumb stuff. You tend not to forbid your kids or kid your friends if they want a little toke of science fiction from time to time. A news report on solar energy possibilities in the near future doesn't seem like total balderdash, just, perhaps, a bit optimistic in the short run. A front-page newspaper article on the U.S. space probe to Jupiter doesn't read like Sanskrit or form associations with guff like spirit-rapping. Surprise! Your life has been altered and you didn't even notice.

Discovering sex (or competitive sports or evangelical Christianity or demon rum) is not always a total diversion, though. You can, of course, read with one hand. And there are further activities open to the fan in the omnivorous stage: Hundreds, often thousands, of fans gather at conventions every weekend throughout Western civilization (the World Science Fiction Convention — generically called the "Worldcon" — was in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1995; the 1999 Worldcon may be in Australia, for the third time in thirty years) to act strangely together. To a teenage omnivore, such a weekend of license to be maladjusted in the company of and in harmony with the covertly alienated of all ages can be golden. No one much notices how you dress or act as long as you do not injure yourself or others.

Swords and capes (ah! Romance!) are particularly favored among the fat and pimply population, male and female. One wag counted seventy-two Princess Leias at the World SF Convention of 1978 in Phoenix! Star Trek costumes still abound in the mid-nineties. My favorite moment at the Worldcon in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1994 was seeing the fully costumed Klingon Butt Massage team enter a late-night party. Or you can hang out in your everyday slacks and jacket or torn jeans and T-shirt with like minds.

And right there among the crowd (at least at the Worldcon — the traditional gathering of the cliques) are all the big-name professionals, from Brian Aldiss and Poul Anderson to Timothy Zahn and David Zindell, by tradition and in fact approachable for conversation and frivolity. Although this ideal is seldom approached at large SF conventions any longer — two decades of SF media cons, at which the stars are the pros and the fans are merely consumers, have split the psyche of the whole community. My own opinion is that the growth of the consumer/producer split in the SF community has been generally a bad thing for fandom and a good thing for commerce. My advice: Seek out smaller conventions and avoid the large Northeast and West Coast ones at first. Just being there at a small con makes you a potentially permanent member of the SF family.

It's really a big clique, you see — or rather a band of several cliques. Just like the ones you are cut out of in the local junior high or whatever, only now you are automatically a member of one until you do something beyond the pale. You might be so shy as to be tongue-tied for your first ten conventions; still, when I was younger I could walk into a room party, sit on the floor and listen to Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey sing Gilbert and Sullivan — and join in. And go home and tell my friends that I spent time with Asimov last weekend. You can still find similar events today. Just so you don't feel lonely in the arid stretches between conventions you can afford to attend, there are approximately 1,000 fan magazines produced by individuals and written by themselves and/or other fans to keep you in communication with the SF world day to day. And there is the Internet.


Excerpted from Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1984 David G. Hartwell. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I: The Source and Power of SF's Appeal

1. "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve"

2. "I Have a Cosmic Mind. Now What Do I Do?"

3. Worshipping at the Church of Wonder

Part II: Exploring the Worlds of Science Fiction

4. Running Away from the Real World

5. When It Comes True, It's No Fun Anymore

6. Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?

Part III: Writers, Fans, Critics

7. Why "Science Fiction" Is the Wrong and Only Name for It

8. Science Fiction Writers Can't Write for Sour Apples

9. New Wave: The Great War of the 1960s

10. Fandom

Part IV: The Future of SF

11. "Let's Get SF Back in the Gutter Where It Belongs"

12. Crawling Home from the Future

Select Bibliography

Select Glossary of Fan Language


I. Sixty Books Important to the Development of SF, Published Before the Name Was Invented

II. The Best 105 SF Books Since the Invention of the Field in the Twenties

III. Teaching SF: i. An Introductory SF Course; ii. A Course in the Literary History of SF

IV. Understanding Hard SF

V. Dollars and Dragons: The Truth About Fantasy

VI. Editing the Science Fiction Novel

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