Views expressed by guest or resident columnists are entirely their own.

Barry N. Malzberg is the winner of the very first Campbell Memorial Award, a multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee, twice the winner of the Locus Award for Best Nonfiction Book, and the author of more than ninety books.

Barry N. Malzberg

There is No Defense

Judith Merril (1920-1997) had big ideas in the 1950s: she was going to take down all of the barriers between what she called the science fiction "ghetto" and the "mainstream." She was going to prove that the barriers were artificially constructed and made no sense.

We were living in a science fiction world: Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth had proved that on the social register. And Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Sputnik demonstrated that this was not a sick little genre for (what Isaac Asimov called) "crazy kids."

She embarked upon her campaign, writing book reviews (she eventually became Fantasy & Science Fiction's regular reviewer) and inaugurating her Annual Best SF series in 1957, which was taken on by Dell for mass market and which became immediately the most significant and influential of all the annuals. She wrote pandering introductions to stories by Russell Baker and Jorge Luis Borges reprinted in her annuals, arguing that they proved that literary figures and New York Times columnists were writing the stuff just as well or better as the hacks in Astounding and Galaxy.

She persuaded Anthony Boucher (who had his own shaky and ambivalent fix on the field) that everything was science fiction. And Boucher hired Arthur Jean Cox to write an ongoing movie column in which he noted that the musical Li’l Abner was hard-core science fiction. Her columns in Fantasy & Science Fiction disdained or ignored category publications as largely hackwork, and she used the space to dismiss almost all of it and surely to propagate the British New Wave writers who were really shaking the earth and changing everything. That led to her commercially disastrous Doubleday anthology England Swings! SF, which Donald A. Wollheim, who published the paperback, told me was the worst-selling Ace paperback in history. This is just part of what the former Josephine Grossman was doing in the critical period 1955-1968 after she had essentially written finis to her career as a fiction writer; but it was quite enough to get the job done. A decent writer and a highly intelligent person, she did the field more damage than Raymond Palmer or Roger Corman, Ed Earl Repp or Ed Wood. The field certainly survived, it had demonstrated the pre-Lucas capacity to survive anything, but it was irreversibly damaged.

It was irreversibly damaged because Merril's influence in those years was great, and she was on a methodical, hardly understated campaign to tear down the walls and destroy the category. As a failed mainstream writer who had essentially been rescued by her friends Theodore Sturgeon and Philip J. Klass, and pointed toward commercial writing, Merril was determined to find another way into the mainstream. And if that involved rupturing or destroying science fiction, well, that would be collateral damage.

I had a little of this syndrome myself—like Merril I came to science fiction in my mid-twenties as a failed angry quality lit writer. But I never forgot that science fiction had essentially rescued me, that Final War which had been deemed "too grimly realistic" for The Hudson Review and condescendingly bounced had been taken by Edward L. Ferman, and in that simple act he had saved my creative life, and I was grateful. I was not contemptuous of science fiction or anxious to pummel the misshapen but occasionally beautiful field of literature because it was a means of default. Rather, I was grateful and having read a great deal in the genre at a formative time (so had Merril) I knew that it was a legitimate brand of literature which was being screwed mercilessly by the academy and the quality lit gatekeepers and spirits. Their casual contempt (like the contempt of the Hudson Review) infuriated me and still does. But I never blamed science fiction for what the larger culture had done to it. Merril did. Merril was the kind of liberal who in different circumstances would blame James Baldwin and Cassius Clay for bad manners, for giving their people a bad name.

Merril ignored or elided or just did not give a damn about a truism expressed mockingly in W.S. Gilbert's lyric in The Gondoliers for Arthur Sullivan's music. There lived a King in days of old of whom a story was told: he made royalty of the entire Kingdom. Merril made science fiction of the entire compass of drama and literature, from Don Quixote to Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. Earls and dukes and ladies of court were a dime a dozen, but the King forgot "That if everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody." His subjects, rather than wallowing in their promotion, were angry, felt cheated. And if everything was science fiction—well, then, nothing was science fiction.

Merril, before she gave up anthologies, criticism, and citizenship to expatriate herself to Canada in 1968, was made desperate by the unending, irretrievable, uncorrectable stupidity and murderousness of Vietnam. She had been on an increasingly evident, now unapologetic campaign to destroy science fiction.

She knew it: the campaign was purposeful. In her story introduction to Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" in her final volume, she conceded that the excellence and rigor of the story called her back to an earlier time when she had been entranced by such work and her own desire to  replicate. But that story introduction was half or three-quarters an apology: its appearance in Best SF, its very quality, were an implicit rebuke to the scattered, unfocused, false literary emptiness which had come to occupy most of the anthology. Meanwhile, she was writing savage reviews in Fantasy & Science Fiction, reviews as savage as those of Alfred Bester's half a decade earlier which had created a good deal of foul karma and eventually got him fired.

Algis Budrys observed from a distance in his Galaxy reviews Merril's convulsions in the late 60s. He wished her well in her efforts to depart, but added that he could not imagine what otherwise Merril could do, and therefore found those efforts misguided. Budrys had his own problems—one of my earliest columns here commented at length on his deterioration—but attachment to the field and respect for rigor had never been among them. And his offhand sentence pretty well adumbrated the dislocation, the wandering of Merril's final quarter century. She was the Queen of Canadian Science Fiction, maybe, and she had a good many acolytes, more for her feminism than philosophy. But she was as lost as Bester, who had lost his ear and sense. It is a hard concession, but I am not in a merciful mode—as I have become both the perpetrator of a body of work now close to unknown, and yet still clutched by the passion to believe that Science Fiction which changed the world in its inception and gave us the world in which we however unwillingly dwell...science fiction still matters. It will always matter, and in all the worlds in all of time its light will never be lost.


Copyright © 2016 by Barry N. Malzberg




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