These days, we're used to seeing articles about how science fiction has gone mainstream, or how the geeks rule the world. But back in 1975, this was still a relatively new idea — and it kind of terrified Newsweek Magazine.
In December 1975, Newsweek's book critic Peter S. Prescott began a feature on the science fiction literature and film that was taking up an ever-greater place in American culture by sounding a note of alarm. Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren had been published in January of that year, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed had been published the year before, while Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle were establishing Kurt Vonnegut as a major literary figure. Prescott was horrified.
Suddenly, they're all around us. Too late now to think of repelling them, or even of self-defense. They've conquered the nursery and have sunk tentacles into the colleges. Disguised as pimply kids and pallid biochemists, they look like us , and are multiplying, communicating with one another in frequencies the rest of us don't hear. They have a message for us, too: We're taking over. Pay attention. Be respectful.
The "them" that Prescott is afraid of are "the science fiction people," and Prescott holds those people in a great deal of contempt. They are:
the people who read and write science fiction, and those who gape at science-fiction images on movie and television screens. Their antics have spawned a profitable industry. Their attitudes reflect a narrow, necessary unease about our future. Their literary aspirations constitute a curious refutation of what other writers—they call them "mainstream" writers—have been about for decades.
And even more scarily, they are blurring the lines between author and audience:
Many of today's prominent sf writers began as fans. They attended the conventions, wrote imitative exercises for the fanzines. Few sf writers aim higher than what a teen-age intelligence can grasp, and the smart ones, like Kurt Vonnegut*, carefully satirize targets - racism, pollution, teachers - that teen-agers are conditioned to dislike.
And of course science fiction isn't just taking over literature, it's taking over cinema:
Less intellectual, perhaps, will be "The Star Wars," a $9 million movie about a juvenile gang rumble against Fascist oppressors of the galaxy. Its director, George Lucas, who made "American Graffiti" and the futuristic "THX 1138," doesn't care if it's called science fiction or not. "A shoot-'em-up with ray guns," is his description. "A romantic fantasy about as serious as a spaghetti Western. A sword-and-Sorcery film." Steven Spielberg of "Jaws" will direct "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which producer Julia Phillips says will be "the 'Jaws' of science-fiction movies."
Prescott is sometimes weirdly nostalgic about the science fiction of the "Golden Age":
For all its hardware, visual science fiction is severely limited in its effects. The joy of written science fiction lies in the abstract and sometimes exceedingly complex intellectual premises with which it is wholly concerned. The Golden Age of Science Fiction began in 1939, the year Asimov, Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon began sending stories to Astounding Science Fiction's new editor, John W. Campbell.
Campbell is an authentic sf hero. He gave his writers ideas for some of their best stories; he demanded real plots and plausible science; he was indifferent to complex characters and fine writing; he insisted that human beings were never to be defeated by extraterrestrials; and he paid his writers 1 cent a word (eventually 4 cents - about what sf magazines pay today).
But it's the fact that science fiction of the 1970s is taking on serious issues: race, sex, social class, that makes Prescott nervous:
Then in the 1960s something happened to the genre. While some of the solid professionals ambled on as they always had, new writers like Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany showed themselves more interested in sociology and psychology than in physics and chemistry. "The New Wave," as they came to be known, wrote less about fanciful worlds and old-fashioned futures, and more about worlds and futures, that develop logically from current social problems. Their books grew very long. They began, they said, to experiment with style. In a fat anthology called "Dangerous Visions," Ellison announced "a revolution." It was now OK, he told the sf community, to write about sex, religion and politics in science fiction. We can act just like the grown-ups. In fact, we are the grownups.
But what he likes about his "authentic sf heroes" is that they seemed to know their place in a way current authors don't:
An argument can be made that the ghetto is precisely where science fiction belongs, that it has enough to offer without succumbing to the literary pretensions of the New Wave. "What the New Wave wants to do," says Asimov, "is through science fiction to write whatever they want to write. Great literature, perhaps. This is different from the people in my days. We knew we were entering a ghetto."
What Prescott hopes for is that science fiction would remain concerned with its traditional subjects,
At its best, science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes and shows them to us in a rough disguise: the monster and the rocket.
Of course monsters and rockets alone don't represent science fiction at its best, although they're not too bad. Here's just about the only thing Prescott was right about: We're taking over. Pay attention. Be respectful.
*Kurt Vonnegut got so angry about this article that he wrote a letter to Newsweek's editor Osborn Elliott:
I have never written with teen-agers in mind, nor are teen-agers the chief readers of my books. I am the first sf writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute for Arts and Letters, the first to have a book become a finalist for a National Book Award.