The Mechanics Of Wonder: The Creation Of The Idea Of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl (book review).

March 11, 2021 | By | Reply More

I picked up this book over a decade ago having seen it pop up in a bibliography and had an inkling to pick up books about Science Fiction at the time. This is the fifteen and last book of ‘Liverpool Science Fiction Texts’, although I haven’t looked at the rest.

Westfahl’s introduction indicates he’s read a lot of books about SF and I’ve looked a few up and they are still out there, although he does mention a lot of the authors, the likes of Thomas Clareson aren’t really gone into detail. Principally, he’s looking at just what is Science Fiction. Maybe balancing good and bad might have made for a better balance and then focuses entirely on Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell.

The problem comes when he discusses Hugo Gernsback as being an editor and critic and much of this part of the book is centred on this. Gernsback was principally an editor at the time when SF was evolving and wanted to ensure that science was used in Science Fiction so it’s hardly surprising that he accented this on the authors he accepted material from. He didn’t have a template to base himself on and went by gut instinct. Considering this was also in the American depression, I doubt if we would have seen his slush pile and what he was rejecting. Oddly, he mentions one of Heinlein’s stories inspired an invention without giving it a name. Hardly difficult to research as it was the remote waldo arms used in laboratories.

What I found infuriating was Westfahl’s comment that you need a degree to act as a critic. Considering that practically all degree critics don’t work professionally reviewing SF books and often getting it drummed out of them and look down at our genre, does drop his credibility a bit. Westfahl might be the exception but they are certainly a rarity in the UK.

Considering how critical Westfahl was on Gernsback, his last chapter on him does focus a bit more on his successes and the material he had available to play with. Speaking from an editor’s perspective, you can only deal with what is handed to you to accept, reject or help polish to make better and none of you folk have sent me any stories in a long time. He certainly gave Stanley Weinbaum a leg up when he depicted a Martian that was non-humanoid in his ‘A Martian Odyssey’. Of course, as with any publication, there are bills to pay and that was largely what put an end to Gernsback’s publishing career.

Oddly, Westfahl’s look at other editors before moving onto John Campbell Jr. seems almost incidental and Ray Palmer and later, Terry Carr, barely gets a mention. It is worthy of note that Gernsback’s former sub-editor T. O’Conor Sloan re-established the term ‘Science Fiction’ away from ‘scientifiction’.

It’s hardly surprising that Westfahl concentrates more on John Campbell Jr., even if he isn’t included in the dedication at the front of the book. From my own perspective, Gernsback established the foundations of SF, even if he got some things wrong treating fiction as a means to put science over to the reader. Campbell’s way was to integrate the science into the fiction so you could see it in action and that’s pretty much lasted to the present day. It’s the equivalent of not having to explain how a television works to the reader but seeing its application. The only grey area is whether SF can only be written by people with a scientific background when really it is down to how good a researcher a writer is in understanding any subject.

I do think Westfahl is taking the wrong tactic with comparing editors with their storywriting skills. It would have been interesting to have seen what he was to say about Frederick Pohl’s storywriting when he was an editor to when he wasn’t. They aren’t the same animal. Unlike Gernsback, Campbell under his alias Don A. Stuart, did at least write one significant story with ‘Who Goes There?’ that ultimately, so far, has been the basis of three films, ‘The Thing’, if you didn’t know. One could equally say why hasn’t Westfahl done anything significant as a storywriter to see from the our side of the fence.

The art of being an editor could fill several editorials let alone in a review. A lot of it when it comes to looking at material sent in is to distinguish good from bad, let alone any bias the editor has. A few samples can shape any neo-editor is being able to tell the difference between quality and dross and I’m in a tiny minority spending time explaining to the latter where they are making mistakes hoping that they might improve.

A lot of the chapter devoted to Campbell’s own writing shifts over to Robert Heinlein and it finally reassuring he notes waldos here but not earlier. Something Westfahl does miss out is Heinlein’s novels invariably had a philosophical character that was really himself, as in ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ with lawyer Jubal Harshaw, despite Westfahl using him as an example.

I do think Damon Knight made a mistake with AE Van Vogt saying he took things for granted and relied on being profound. If anything, Van Vogt used his skill as a storyteller to throw you into the story and explain what is needed and let you unravel what is being done than spell out the detail simply because he applied the science than tell about it. That’s typical Campbell. From his own autobiography, Van Vogt took his research very seriously and talked constructively with scientists.

Something that does come out of Westfahl’s last chapters is how Campbell imposed what he wanted from the writers who worked for him. I wish Westfahl had done comparisons elsewhere. It isn’t just Campbell who would want an uplifting ending to stories, this is generally an American attitude even up to modern day. We British are more cynical and have more of a latitude with this and often see a success as a good day at the office than a lot of back-patting. From what Westfahl puts down, Campbell certainly had a certain amount of fiefdom with his control of writers who worked for him but he made it easier for new SF magazines to come out and take the same route for paying their writers well. Having humans always beat the aliens is another American trait but more in terms of showing how we are always supposed to in the right.

I’m less sure about Westfahl noting the dates of birth for the significant SF writers of the Golden Age being so close together. You could find something similar if you chose any generation. A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time and having the talent. When you compare to the size of the population, it really is a very tiny number.

In any written genre, there are bound to be editors and writers who become major influences on those who follow. In early SF, this was Gernsback and Campbell for good or bad. In his final conclusions, Westfahl looks at what make a Science Fiction story but does neglect the most obvious answer that the plot solution isn’t standard although it has become clichéd these days indicating that writers are relying far too much on a small selection of choices.

The content of my review will show there’s a lot to think about here which is always a good sign. You also see a lot of books noted in his bibliography should give you plenty to look up, although Westfahl noting his own books does raise an odd question mark over him looking over or promoting his own books.

Part of me does feel he should have looked at other editors from the time period a but more and the focus in the title should have made it clearer that it was principally about these two editors.

GF Willmetts

March 2021

(pub: Liverpool University Press, 1998. 344 page hardback. Price: Good question. It’s been languishing on my shelf for a few years. ISBN: 0-85323-563-5)

check out website: https://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/

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Category: Books, Culture, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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