Fantasy and Human Experience

Clark Ashton Smith

I should like to point out a few considerations which, apparently, have been overlooked by Mr. Julian Gray in his thoughtful and well-written criticism of science fiction in the letter columns of the June Amazing Stories.

To begin with, it seems to me that his definition of literature as being exclusively a study of human reactions and character- development is rather narrow and limited. Literature can be, and does, many things; and one of its most glorious prerogatives is the exercise of imagination on things that lie beyond human experience—the adventuring of fantasy into the awful, sublime and infinite cosmos outside the human aquarium. In this genre, of which science fiction is one branch, the main interest lies in other elements than mere character-reaction and development, such as would properly be emphasized in a tale of ordinary events and conditions.

Of course, science-fiction can, has been, and will be written with a close attention to verisimilitude in such matters. But for the initiate in this type of fiction, and highly imaginative and fantastic fiction in general, the real thrill comes from the description of the ultrahuman events, forces and scenes, which properly dwarf the terrene actors to comparative insignificance. For many people—probably more than Mr. Gray realizes—imaginative stories offer a welcome and salutary release from the somewhat oppressive tyranny of the homocentrie, and help to correct the deeply introverted, ingrowing values that are fostered by present-day "humanism" and realistic literature with its unhealthy materialism and earth-bound trend. Science fiction, at its best, is akin to sublime and exalted poetry, in its evocation of tremendous, non-anthropomorphic imageries. To demand in such tales the intensive earthly observation of a hardy is idle and beside the point; and one who approaches them from this angle will miss the true value and beauty.

It seems to me, too, that Mr. Gray makes a pretty sweeping statement in Ills remarks about science fiction authors. Doubtless there are hacks in this branch of writing, as in all others; but, on the other hand, there are sincere imaginative artists. One only has to Willie A. Merritt (at least in his earlier work, such as the original novelette version of "The Moon Pool"), Stanton Coblentz, who has written some gorgeous fantastic satires, John Tame, a master of authentic science, and H. P. Lovecraft, whose "The Color Out of Space" goes infinitely beyond anything of H. G. Wells in its sheer imaginative scope and creation of atmosphere. To say that science fiction writers are "men of doubtful education and still more doubtful intelligence" because they prefer imaginative happenings, cosmic forces, atmosphere, etc., to psychological analysis, is an utterly pointless arid senseless statement. But, since there is a fixed gulf, wider and deeper than Erebus, between imaginative people and those who lack imagination, it is no doubt equally senseless to argue this question.

Certainly, however, one must admit that there is vast room for improvement in the general body of science-fiction. This improvemeat, it seems to me, could lie ill the direction of more skilful and finished writing, the exclusion of the trite and overworked, and the elimination of many stories which, on close analysis, are revealed as mere gangster tales or ordinary adventure stories with a futuristic or ultra-planetary setting. A few editorial measures of this sort would go far to remove the reproach which can justly be brought against science-fiction magazines. As a well- wisher, a reader—and also a writer of this genre—I sincerely hope that such an improvement will in time be brought about.

There is one other matter that I should like to touch upon. Mr. Gray's preliminary remarks about the general development of literature. To judge from these, one would think that the world's literature is marked off in perfectly distinct, geological strata! and that all the former, more primitive layers are now hermetically sealed beneath a deep and solid stratum of realism. This, however, is not the case. Romanticism, both in novels and short magazine stories, is still the most popular and widely read genre; and as for the supernatural, which Mr. Gray puts at the Archean bottom—well, even that despised branch of literary endeavor is having its innings, both with writers and readers. Apart from folk-lore, the literature of the supernatural is almost a modern invention anyway; and some of the best work in that genre is being done at the present time. Realism, even though it is the only form favored by the alleged "quality magazines" and the self-appointed critical pontiffs, certainly doesn't have the field to itself. And I think one can safely predict that it never will. The intolerable conditions of modern life and mechanistic civilization, will, one thinks, be more and more conducive to the development of a literature of imaginative "escape."

There is still another angle which occurs to me, apropos of Mr. Gray's letter. After all, why shouldn't literature, or at least one literary genre, emphasize what he calls the "inhuman," which, more properly, is the non-human or extra-human? Isn't it only the damnable, preposterous and pernicious egomania of the race, which refuses to admit anything but man's own feelings, desires, aims and actions as worthy of consideration?

This egomania, alas! is manifested in other ways than through literature, and lies at the bottom of that ruthless aggrandization, that maltreatment of weaker life-forms, that presumptuous meddling with the delicate balance of planetary forces, which may sweep our present-day civilization into the limbo of the dinosaurs. I fear that many super-scientific tales, which depict a world-wide catastrophe as the result of human meddling with nature, may prove to be all too prophetic. Any type of writing that would serve even in the smallest degree as a brake on the madly careening wheels of this racial egomania, is, it seems to me, more than praiseworthy from a moral standpoint if from none other.

Clark Ashton Smith
Auburn, California

P.S. On re-reading Mr. Gray's letter, I find that I have forgotten to mention the matter of H. G. Wells, which he brings up. Doubtless it is the particular trend of Wells' mental development that has led him, in later years, to abandon the writing of science fiction for that of sociological novels. Wells, when he wrote the marvelous "Time Machine," "The War of the Worlds," and other fine fantasies, had in him much of the artist, perhaps a little of the poet. These, however, have been progressively smothered and drowned out by the growth of the pedagogue, the utilitarian "humanist."

As to Aldous Huxley, I have not read his "Brave New World," which, I should judge from reviews, is marked by the same congenital pornography as Huxley's ordinary novels. Satire, of course, is a well-recognized function of much science fiction, and perhaps some of it has been a little too subtle for Mr. Gray's apprehension. He seems to have missed Stanton Coblentz, of whom I have already spoken. If I cared to, I could name others in whom the satire is even more subtle and implicit.

If Mr. Gray should find my language somewhat violently polemical in places, he must realize that I have merely availed myself of that parliamentary privilege which he, in his own letter, has already avowedly pre-empted.

In conclusion, let me recommend to Mr. Gray, and to others who are similarly minded, the perusal of imaginative fiction for what it really is rather than for what it isn't. Also, he should realize that there are intelligent (and not necessarily immature) people who have the courage to dissent from the limited and grossly materialistic definition of literature which he has laid down, and who, moreover, are not overawed by the burden of present-day authority.

Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973.

While his printed debate with P. Schulyer Miller was going on, CAS published another long essay-letter in Amazing Stories, 1932. This essay, too, was in response to another letter about science fiction theory. In the June, 1932, issue of Amazing Stories a reader named Julian Gray published, under the title "We Still Feel Science Fiction Will Play an Important Role in the Literature of Tomorrow," a lengthy letter which was an attack on the escapist quality of science fiction and fantasy. Gray pointed out that most popular science fiction still produced stories of fantastic doings in far-off lands which completely ignored the human for the inhuman; most science fiction writers were hacks, and blood and action prevailed all too often. The main reason for this was that science fiction writers lacked conception of the literary form of the short story and the novel; the proper intent of a story was "to show a cross-section of a man's life, at a point where be is faced with some problem" which tests him, and to portray "the breakdown or building up of his character, or the way he reacts to the test. . . ." CAS naturally took issue with this rather narrow definition of literature (cf. his comments on the need for literature to lead the imagination outward, in "On Garbage-Mongering") and responded in the letter here published as "Fantasy and Experience." Its original appearance was in the "Discussions" column in Amazing Stories, October 1932, where it appeared under the editor's title, "An Answer to Mr. Julian Gray's Recent Criticism in Our Discussion Columns." CAS's letter was followed by a lengthy editor's note (the editor of Amazing at this time was T. O'Conor Sloane) which said, in part: "We certainly agree with you in your criticism of the special type of modern fictional literature. Science-fiction does its part to lift up stories and romances out of the rut of realism, which, as you practically say, are to be judged by ingrowing values. You will be surprised if you know how many books of science-fiction have come out year by year. One would suppose that no one would take it up except such writers as H. G. Wells and we know that there is no living Jules Verne and even Mr. Wells is flying off more or less on a tangent in what he considers important subjects. . . . It does us good to read over your notes on authors and comments. We have always felt that our American writers, if anything, surpassed the English authors decidedly in this line of fiction. . ."

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